State's plan to close Sonoma Developmental Center blasted by families, advocates

Family members and advocates for the severely disabled residents at the Sonoma Valley facility say the state's approach fails to adequately address the long-term needs of the 400 people living there.|

The state’s draft plan for closing the Sonoma Developmental Center by 2018 is drawing sharp condemnation from family members and advocates for the disabled over the plan’s perceived failure to adequately address the long-term needs of 400 center residents, who would be moved into community-based settings.

During a highly charged hearing in Sonoma on Monday, dozens of people railed against the closure plan, saying it will result in developmental center residents receiving a substandard level of care that poses risks to their health and possibly their survival.

“This is a cookie-cutter plan that does nothing but fast-track the closure of the Sonoma Developmental Center,” said Brien Farrell of Santa Rosa, whose sister has lived at the facility since 1958.

The state for months has signaled its intent to shutter the Sonoma Developmental Center for budgetary reasons and because institutionalized care for the severely disabled continues to fall out of public favor. But many advocates for the facility have pushed for the state to maintain some level of services at the Eldridge site, including a crisis center and specialized offerings such as dental care.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget set the goal of shutting the center by 2018 as the state moves toward operating a limited number of smaller safety-net and crisis residential services. Critics argue that is not enough time to manage the shutdown and also map out the longer-term care of developmental center residents.

“It’s unacceptable that the draft plan lacks detail about the contingency planning for the placement of the most medically fragile residents in the state system,” state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said.

Santi Rogers, director of the state’s Developmental Services agency, suggested in an interview following Monday’s hearing that he’s receptive to recommending that the date for the center’s closure be moved back because of concerns raised during the public comment process, which closes Wednesday.

“It may take longer than that,” he said of the 2018 closure date.

Rogers also said changes to the draft plan are likely before it is finalized Oct. 1 and forwarded to state lawmakers for their review. He did not detail any possible changes.

“I understand and hear the concerns that parents and others who have loved ones at Sonoma have,” Rogers said.

About 1,100 people reside in the state’s three remaining developmental centers, representing less than 1 percent of the state’s total caseload. The average annual cost of treating a patient at a center is $500,000. The federal Medicaid program, which is administered in California through Medi-Cal, covers as much as half of the cost for patients who qualify.

By contrast, an estimated 288,137 disabled Californians will be treated in community care settings by 2016, according to a nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office report.

State officials say residents will not be moved from the Sonoma Developmental Center until appropriate services and support are identified and available for them in community settings. But critics say the state is moving to close the center before that safety network is implemented.

“The report essentially takes a wait-and-see position on care,” McGuire said. “Wait and see if residents struggle and fail in the community, and then the state will act and make changes if needed.”

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin, who represents Sonoma Valley, told officials at Monday’s forum that Sonoma County’s tight housing market makes it a virtual impossibility for center residents and employees to find housing that meets their needs.

The developmental center has more than 1,300 employees, making it Sonoma Valley’s largest employer.

Gorin raised the possibility that residents will have to move far from Sonoma County for their ongoing care, “and that does our community members and our family members no good whatsoever.”

The draft closure plan did earn wide praise, however, for its recommendation that Sonoma Developmental property not be sold off as surplus, as has happened in similar situations.

A Sonoma County coalition led by Gorin has launched an intensive review of potential uses for the nearly 1,000 acres of prime real estate and the buildings that make up the center should the state close the facility. The group’s stated mission is to preserve as much open space as possible in the transition while maintaining some level of service on the site for disabled clients.

McGuire said he is planning to convene a hearing on the developmental center closure plan through the Senate’s Human Services Committee, which he chairs.

Farrell, whose emotional remarks on behalf of his disabled sister, Susan, drew loud applause from other advocates at Monday’s hearing, said he is concerned that she will suffer diminished health if the center closes and she is separated from her regular doctors and care providers.

“New situations cause her severe anxiety, and I do not want Susan to suffer,” Farrell said. “We will not have adequate services for our family members based on this report, and we will not leave the Sonoma Developmental Center if there are not better services.”

Farrell said it took his sister years to trust her doctor enough to let her perform a basic physical exam.

“They are dedicated to her and they know everything about her,” he said. “We don’t want to lose that.”

Farrell and others said they are worried that complex patient-provider relationships could be shattered by the center’s closure. Nearly half of the residents currently residing in a developmental center have been there more than 30 years, and 18 percent are over the age of 61, according to a state task force report released earlier this year.

Marilyn Good called on state officials to repair the site’s aging infrastructure and expand the services it provides.

“It’s time for a transformation, not a closing,” Good said. “There’s this huge population of mentally ill people in our prisons, and here we have this gorgeous 200-acre property that has housing that should be used for this purpose - for people with mental illnesses.”

Helen Rowntree also spoke against the closure at Monday’s hearing.

“I am here today to protest the death sentence that has been handed out to the Sonoma Developmental Center and its residents,” Rowntree said. “It is necessary to take care of fragile people like this. This is a sanctuary that is populated by the most needy people in our society.”

The draft closure plan is available online at

Staff Writer Angela Hart can be reached at 526-8503 or On Twitter @ahartreports. Staff Writer Derek Moore can be reached at 521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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