Sonoma Valley has a great deal riding on the outcome of meetings to begin next week by a state task force looking into the future of California's four remaining developmental centers.

This would include the expansive Sonoma Developmental Center along Arnold Drive near Glen Ellen, home to about one-third of the 1,500 residents cared for throughout the state.

Given that a stated goal of the task force is "setting a timeline for future closures," there's widespread concern that this could be the final phase toward closure of the center, a part of Sonoma Valley for 122 years.

As Staff Writer Derek Moore reported on Monday, Susan Gorin, who represents the area on the Board of Supervisors, has toured the facility with local environmental groups as part of discussions about what might replace the facility if it closes.

"I think it's important for community groups to come together to envision what we might plan in the future," she said.

We have no disagreement with that. The spectrum of possibilities for what could happen with that 1,670-acre site is long. But before those discussions move past the day-dreaming phase, the community needs to be assured that the residents of the development center are properly cared for first. As we've learned the hard way, that has not always been the case.

The task force was created in response to increasing reports of abuse occurring at the state's four developmental centers and the failure of local law enforcement agencies to properly investigate them.

A state licensing review in December found 57 deficiencies at the Sonoma Valley facility. Four of the cases involved patients who were put in "immediate jeopardy" of health and safety, according to the report. The immediate threats included cases where patients were being abused by staff or by other patients. As a result, the center lost federal funding for 112 seriously disabled patients, which is equivalent to $1.37 million a month, money the state is now covering through its general fund.

This is certainly not sustainable in the long run, especially when one considers that the population of the state's developmental centers has dropped from 6,544 in 1992 to 1,510 today, while the average cost of care has risen from $162,000 to $300,000 over the past 12 years.

Nevertheless, there are no easy answers. While many residents have been moved to smaller community care centers or group homes over the years, few of those who remain at the local facility are well-suited for such settings, local officials say.

Caring for individuals whose disabilities are so significant that they require around-the-clock monitoring and support is challenging and expensive.

But it would certainly be a sad twist of fate if the task force that was set up to ensure improved care of residents at California's developmental centers ended up making recommendations that resulted in those very residents losing the only place they've known as home.

The state can't afford to pretend that closing this facility will provide an easy solution. It won't.

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