Families urge keeping Sonoma Developmental Center open

People who have loved ones living at Sonoma Developmental Center lobbied a state task force in Sacramento Monday to keep the troubled facility open, saying it's better than the alternative of community-based care.

"The next 25 years of Mark's life should not be spent with caregivers who are recruited from Craigslist and promised a wage of $10 an hour," Diane Halcromb said of her 50-year-old brother, Mark Dunkelberger, who has been a resident of the Eldridge facility since 1988.

Halcromb was among several family members to address the task force, which is weighing California's role in providing services to 260,000 of the state's disabled residents, including 1,510 who reside in one of the state's four remaining developmental centers. With nearly 500 residents, Sonoma is the largest of those facilities.

Fighting through tears, Marcella Harris described for the panel the struggle to find quality care for her autistic 17-year-old son. She said she finally obtained a court order for him to be placed at Sonoma, but not before he may have permanently blinded himself, the result of him banging his head against walls and repeatedly hitting himself.

She now fears for his future with the court order expiring and his return to a group home in San Jose.

Harris told the task force that "there's something wrong in the safety net. There's a hole in it."

About 50 people who staged a counter-rally outside the Department of Rehabilitation building called for the immediate closure of developmental centers, which they say have led to rampant abuse of patients, out-dated models of care and a waste of taxpayer money. One woman in a wheelchair held a sign that read, "Institutionalized people equal innocent prisoners."

Kim Williams described her time living at Sonoma as "terrible."

Now living in her own apartment, the 49-year-old disabled woman said she gets to make her life "the way I want it to be."

However, the task force mainly heard from those who expressed deep fears of what would happen to their loved ones should developmental centers close during the day-long hearing.

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