With time ticking down on a task force created to determine the fate of four state-run institutions that house some of California's most profoundly disabled people, supporters of the Sonoma Developmental Center hit the town plaza Saturday in an attempt to rally support for keeping them open.
Organizers said the time to speak out is now given that only about six weeks remain before the task force is scheduled to finish work that many fear will lead to closure of the 122-year-old facility and three sister centers elsewhere in California.
"There is the sense of 'now or never,'" said Gina Cuclis, a Sonoma Valley resident who helped organize the event. "If we want to keep it open, we have to keep our voices strong. The fight is now."
About 60 people attended, many of whom have family members who they say could not receive the care they need anywhere else if the state moves to "evict" them from the place most have called home for decades.
Despite incidents of abuse and some continuing criticism of the sprawling center north of Sonoma in the community of Eldridge, supporters said the facility's overall high level of medical and therapeutic care cannot be replicated in a group home or community care setting.
"SDC is home to some of California's most vulnerable and challenging residents," said Kathleen Miller, whose autistic son, Dan Smith, failed several attempts at living outside the facility.
If it closes, "they lose everything," said Miller, president of the SDC Parent Hospital Association advocacy group who also sits on the state task force.
The 19-member panel designed to represent various stakeholder interests including families, organized labor, advocates for the disabled, service providers and others was appointed in June by California Health and Human Services Secretary Diana Dooley.
Its members face a complicated mission in assessing future service provision to Californians with severe physical and mental disabilities given rising costs, aging facilities and past client abuses that have cost the SDC federal funding and called into question the viability of large institutions.
The value of the developmental centers is disputed by some who believe the disabled could and should enjoy increased freedom and dignity in more individualized settings.
But many who attended Saturday's rally credited the SDC with providing the security and care that permits their loved ones to live full, happy lives.
Tom Chesterman, a retired Episcopal priest who lives in Santa Rosa, said his 49-year-old son, Tim, tried living in a group home before moving into the Eldridge Center 35 years ago, said moving him now "would be a death sentence."
Disabled at birth, Tim Chesterman has very limited cognitive skills, cannot speak and lacks what his father called "hazard awareness," which means he must have constant supervision and security.
Hercules resident Mary Lew attended the march and rally with a sign bearing photos of her sister and the message: "Don't evict our daughter and sister from her home in Sonoma Developmental Center."
"She just wouldn't do well in a group home," Lew said. "She would try to escape. Some people do wonderfully in group homes, and I'm happy for them."
The Sonoma Developmental Center is the largest of the four state-run developmental centers with a combined population of about 1,510 — most of them with severe disabilities that set them apart. Just under 500 residents live on the picturesque grounds of the Eldridge facility, which employs about 1,200 people, advocates said.