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PD Editorial: Mysteries past and future at Sonoma Developmental Center

It’s hard to make the argument that the entire Sonoma center should remain open.|

Family members of relatives cared for at the Sonoma Developmental Center are understandably anxious about the state legislative analyst’s recommendation that the center be closed within the next decade.

After all, it’s unclear how and where the 400 or so individuals living at the center would receive the care they need if and when it closes. The residents have Down syndrome and other severe developmental disorders that require 24-hour care. Given the specialized needs of their loved ones, families are ill-equipped to bring them home.

At the same time, it’s hard to defend how these centers have operated - often shrouded in secrecy - or to argue that these individuals are better off staying where they are.

This was illustrated by a decision handed down by the state Supreme Court last week concerning a California Public Records Act request filed by the Center for Investigative Reporting regarding citations issued to the state’s development centers concerning patient abuse, injury and death.

In 2011, the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting asked for copies of all citations issued by the state Department of Health Services since 2002 to the state’s seven largest treatment centers, including the one south of Glen Ellen.

The department responded that it wasn’t required to keep records older than four years and that it was required to “aggressively” redact information from the citations to ensure patient privacy.

Unfortunately, this ensured that the centers were shielded from public scrutiny concerning the true nature of violations of patient safety.

The Center for Investigative Reporting sued, saying that the 55 citations that the Department of Public Health produced covering the time span of 2007 to 2011 were so heavily redacted that they “contained scant information about the violations giving rise to each citation.”

For example, the center was able to acquire an unredacted copy of one citation involving an incident at Sonoma Developmental Center in which one-third of the patients in one unit were tasered unnecessarily. According to court documents, the citation described the injuries sustained by the patients and explained that most had limited or no ability to communicate verbally about what happened to them.

“By contrast, the redacted copy of the report says nothing more than a violation” of a certain health code occurred, the Supreme Court ruling said.

In their decision, the justices sided with a lower court that said the health department, under the Long-Term Care Act of 1973, must redact patient names and little else before making citations public.

Once these documents are released, it’s unlikely that they’re going to build public confidence that these patients are better off staying in the care of the Sonoma Developmental Center.

At the same time, given the steady decline of the population of people cared for in state developmental centers - now just 1 percent of what was once the centers’ case load - it’s hard to make the argument that the entire Sonoma Developmental Center should remain open for the care of these individuals.

Given where the center has been and where it’s going in terms of patients and resources, finding a community-based location for their care may be in the best interests of these patients, their families and the state as a whole. As it is, it’s not working.

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