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Hearing on closure of Sonoma Developmental Center set for Monday

Emotions are expected to run high Monday at a meeting on the state’s planned closing of the Sonoma Developmental Center, intended to help identify options for the approximately 400 severely disabled clients who live there and potential future uses for the 900-acre campus.

“You will hear anger, because we’ve been talking and talking and none of our comments are reflected in the transition plan,” said Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin, who has been working with a coalition to preserve the Sonoma Valley center.

“This is simply a cookie-cutter approach to closure, the same they’ve used in every developmental center,” she said Sunday. “Residents’ families will be furious and employees will be disillusioned.”

She said it is important for opponents of the closure to show up at today’s meeting to express their disappointment in the state’s recently released draft plan for the 124-year-old center. The public hearing, the second of two held before the plan is submitted to the State Legislature next month, will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Renaissance Lodge in Sonoma, 1325 Broadway Ave.

The state is proposing to close the Eldridge facility by 2019 and transfer the residents into community care homes and programs, a trend that has been ongoing for decades in other developmental centers.

The Department of Developmental Services says a system of community alternatives has developed that serves approximately 290,000 people, including many with complex medical and behavioral needs that mirror those of individuals who live at the Sonoma facility.

But families of the residents say it will be traumatic, or worse, for their loved ones.

At an initial hearing in June, many family members predicted that transferring such profoundly disabled residents to new facilities with lower standards of care and less oversight would kill them.

State officials say residents will not be moved from the facility until appropriate services and support is identified and available for individual residents.

The stated “overriding priority” of the plan is to meet the individual needs of each resident in a transition to a community living arrangement.

“Many of us are skeptical that the state will move slowly,” Gorin said. “And we are absolutely incredulous and doubting that the community services will be available before they attempt to place these folks in the community.”

She said the needs of the individuals are complex and the service demands are enormous, casting doubt on whether the state can adequately help an influx of developmentally disabled residents in community settings.

“They are not providing services to 270,000 regional center clients that are already in communities,” she said.

Gorin’s group is advocating the facility be transformed, rather than closed, with at least some services preserved for the developmentally disabled, and some complementary services be explored for other groups, such as veterans, who also might be housed there.

“Our immediate concern is (that) we have a functional community health center remain on the site, to meet the needs of whatever population may stay on the site,” she said.

Sonoma Developmental Center, which opened in 1891, was originally named the California Home for the Care and Training of the Feeble Minded, then Sonoma State Home, and known as Sonoma State Hospital until 1986.

It is the oldest facility in California established specifically for serving the needs of individuals with developmental disabilities and at its height had more than 3,000 patients, according to Gorin.

Of the remaining 406 residents, about 62 percent have lived there 30 years or more, according to the state’s draft plan. The population is also older, with 90 percent over the age of 40.

The center, the biggest employer in Sonoma Valley, has more than 1,200 employees, including psychiatrists, psychiatric technicians, psychologists and social workers.

The sprawling campus has lakes, wooded hills and various features including a residential campground, store/cafeteria, post office, petting zoo, sports fields, swimming pools, equestrian program and picnic areas.

Gorin’s coalition wants to preserve and protect the property and open up more of the undeveloped land to public access.

In 1999, 670 acres of the Sonoma Developmental Center were transferred to the California Department of Parks and Recreation and are now part of Jack London State Park. And in 2007, 41 acres were transferred to Sonoma County Regional Parks.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@clarkmas

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