PD Editorial: A hasty bid to shut down Sonoma center

The residents’ welfare, not arbitrary dates and budget targets, must be the top priority in deciding the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center.|

What’s the rush?

The handwriting may be on the wall for the Sonoma Developmental Center and two similar facilities elsewhere in California. The state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst, Republican legislators and now Gov. Jerry Brown are recommending closure of the facilities, which are home to about 1,300 intellectually and developmentally disabled residents.

Those supporting closure say it would cost less to place the residents in group homes and other community-based settings. They also point to the state’s declining reliance on institutional care, a trend dating to the 1960s and accelerated by court decisions and changes in state and federal law. But that process hasn’t been smooth.

Funding for community-based housing and treatment programs has fallen far short of the need and promises to do better routinely go unfulfilled. Closing state mental hospitals was a major factor in the rise of homelessness and, especially, in the high incidence of mental illness in the homeless population, which has placed added pressure on jails and law enforcement.

In the late 1960s, more than 13,000 people lived in eight state developmental centers. The 1,300 residents of the remaining centers in Glen Ellen, Porterville and Costa Mesa are among the most profoundly disabled people in the state. Some have spent most of their lives in one of the centers, relocating as they have closed. Many have returned after failed attempts at living in community-based settings, and about 200 former residents end up in county jails on any given day.

Their welfare must be the top priority. Many family members and guardians argue passionately that their loved ones aren’t equipped to live outside the developmental centers.

“Our hearts are broken,” Kathleen Miller, president of Sonoma’s Parent Hospital Association, said Thursday after Brown release his May budget revision, which calls for closure of the Sonoma Developmental Center by 2018 and the others by 2021.

“There’s a moral issue here,” the Rev. Tom Chesterman, whose son lives at the Sonoma center, told The Press Democrat Editorial Board recently, adding that a society is judged by how it treats the most vulnerable people.

That must guide the discussions about the developmental centers, not any arbitrary date or budget target. The state took a full five years to plan and execute the most recent developmental center closure, and Brown’s plan includes six years for of the remaining centers. Why just three for the Sonoma center?

Patient welfare is most important, and legislators should listen carefully to family members and caregivers. Other issues also warrant careful consideration. The Sonoma Developmental Center is the largest employer in the Sonoma Valley, and its closure would have a significant impact on the region. The center itself is an important resource, a 1,000-acre campus with more than 140 buildings in the heart of a scenic watershed and wildlife corridor.

A community coalition formed to plan a future for the property held its first meeting this month in nearby Sonoma, attracting more than 200 people. Among the ideas offered at the session is combining a scaled-back developmental center with other services, such as specialized medical care or junior college classes, available to the community at large. More “Transform SDC” sessions are planned, but a hasty closure order could undermine the process, denying the Sonoma Valley, as well as developmental center residents’ families, a voice in the future of a venerable institution.

If the centers are destined to close, it needs to be done right, not just done fast.

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