Future of Sonoma Developmental Center in limbo

  • Kathleen Miller, and her son Dan Smith who lives at the Sonoma Developmental Center, background, Friday May 31, 2013 near Glen Ellen. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2013

Kathleen Miller is desperately afraid that her disabled son could not survive outside the Sonoma Developmental Center.

She previously tried moving Dan Smith, who is 46 and has autism and bipolar disorder, into board-and-care homes. Both times he was kicked out.

"It was horrible," said Miller, 67, who lives just north of Santa Rosa.

Her son's future and that of 1,510 of California's most vulnerable residents is on the line with a new task force that will recommend whether the state's four developmental centers are still viable or should be scrapped.

California's Health and Human Services Agency is leading the effort, which again confronts the long-standing dilemma of where best to care for people whose disabilities are so profound they require constant and expensive monitoring.

Developmental centers are saddled with aging infrastructure, declining populations and, in the case of the facility in Sonoma Valley, loss of federal funding related to problems that include patient abuse.

But community-care options, as Miller can attest, aren't a panacea.

"This has been the only home they've known," Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district includes the developmental center, said of the nearly 500 people who reside at the facility, the largest of its kind in the state. "It's just not safe for them to be in these group homes or community care centers."

The demise of developmental centers has long been predicted in California. Advocates of keeping the institutions open are particularly worried in this instance by the timing of the task force and its stated mission, which includes setting a "timeline for future closures."

The panel was created following media reports detailing graphic examples of abuse at the state's developmental centers and the failure of law enforcement to properly investigate the crimes. The Sonoma center has given up federal funding for 112 seriously disabled patients amid investigations into problems at the troubled facility.

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