California health secretary defends closure plan for Sonoma Developmental Center

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SACRAMENTO — California’s health and human services secretary on Wednesday defended the state’s plan to close the Sonoma Developmental Center by 2018, a date that critics, including family members of some of the 400 residents, say does not allow enough time to complete the process and ensure the welfare of those who will be displaced.

Diana Dooley acknowledged what she referred to as a “short time frame” for closing the Eldridge facility. But she said financial pressures and federal mandates related to caring for the disabled outside of institutionalized settings are forcing the state to act more quickly than normal. It typically takes the state five years or more to close a developmental center.

“We’re running out of money,” Dooley said, referring to the planned end of federal funds supporting the Sonoma center.

Dooley’s comments were the first she has made publicly on the closure plan since it was submitted to the Legislature earlier this month, and they came during a break in a meeting of a developmental center task force Wednesday in Sacramento.

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

The state also is proposing to close the two other remaining developmental centers, one in Orange County and the other in Porterville, by 2021.

Dooley said the state is having to move more quickly in Sonoma’s case because federal funding for the facility is scheduled to run out in July 2017, unless the state succeeds in getting an extension.

“We’ve got to responsibly transition to environments of care that are less costly than the maintenance of this infrastructure at Sonoma. That’s the budget reason,” she said.

The $515 million budget approved this summer for the state’s remaining development centers represented an 8.5 percent funding decrease over the prior fiscal year. That amount included $295 million from the state’s general fund.

The process of closing the Sonoma center will have to continue amid a significant leadership change. Santi Rogers, director of the state’s Developmental Services agency, announced at Wednesday’s meeting that he is retiring. Dooley said his departure will not affect the timeline for Sonoma’s closure.

Critics of the plan remain skeptical the state can meet the 2018 deadline and do so without compromising care for the people who live at the Sonoma center, in some cases for decades.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, on Wednesday reiterated his concerns that the closure plan emphasizes financial concerns over the care needs of Sonoma residents.

“An arbitrary deadline based on dollars should not be the main priority,” he said.

Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin echoed that point, calling the three-year timeline for closing the Sonoma center “unacceptable.”

Gorin is leading a local coalition that has launched an intensive review of potential uses for 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-site for disabled clients.

Gorin noted that some families of developmental center residents have called for a moratorium on residents’ leaving the Sonoma center until equal or better services are available in the community.

State officials, responding in the draft closure plan, called that idea “unnecessary and contrary to law.”

Critics of the state’s plan say it does not take into account services that disabled advocates say should remain at Sonoma beyond its closure to address residents’ unique health care needs, such as specialized dentistry. McGuire labeled the plan a “reactive approach” and noted the task force’s recommendations included operating a center of “last resort” at Sonoma, as well as some level of housing.

The state has only committed to operating services, including a crisis center, at Sonoma while the closure process unfolds.

Dooley on Wednesday said the goal of the closure plan was not to account for the types of services that might remain at Sonoma past the closing date, but to establish a framework for other residential options for residents who will be transitioning out of the facility.

She noted the plan will be vetted by the Legislature and that future meetings of stakeholders are planned.

“We will fill in the details over the next several months,” she said. “At the same time, we are working on individual plans for more than 400 people who are living there now.”

She said the health agency may be receptive to letting residents come back to a developmental center if their needs are not met in a community care setting, but only for as long as the developmental center remains open. After the closure, residents and their families presumably will be on their own to find appropriate places for care.

Christine Maul, whose 32-year-old autistic son, Adam, is a resident of Porterville, said he may need time finding the right fit given his past struggles in community programs.

“There’s many of us, myself included, who would like to see a smooth transition to a community group home, but given the experience some of us have had in the past, the lack of a safety net is almost unbearable to contemplate,” Maul, a member of the task force, said to the group Wednesday.

In other comments at the task force meeting, several representatives of community programs lamented chronic underfunding and low pay for workers, which they say places the entire system in jeopardy. A report earlier this year by the Association of Regional Centers noted that years of underfunding have left the systems of community-based services for developmentally disabled “on the brink of collapse.”

“We can plan all we want, but there will be no community structure present,” one program manager said.

Dooley said she is “very aware of the specific targeted challenges that exist” with community-based programs and said she is “committed to doing what we can to address them.”

At the same time, she said, for every community-based program that goes out of business another one opens, so that the number of providers is “relatively constant.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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