It was a bittersweet goodbye Saturday when several dozen parents, siblings and other conservators of people still living at Sonoma Developmental Center gathered tearfully for the last time on the Eldridge campus.
The Parent Hospital Association, which has fought, often fiercely, for the rights and care of residents since the 1970s — frequently raising their voices in Sacramento — mourned their lost battle to keep at least a part of the center open for clients with severe medical and behavior issues they fear the community isn’t equipped to handle.
But they also made their last on-campus meeting a time to recognize people they called “Heroes with Heart.” Honorees included a half-dozen lawmakers and advocates who they say have helped ensure that the welfare of the center’s remaining residents stays at the forefront as the state presses forward with plans to close it at the end of the year.
The decision to close the facility was made official in 2015 for budgetary and quality-of-care reasons, and after embarrassing revelations about cases of sexual assault by developmental center staff.
The group singled out state senators Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg and Bill Dodd, D-Napa, whose districts each include parts of the 860-acre campus, and Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents Sonoma Valley. They also recognized Richard Dale of the Sonoma Ecology Center and John McCaull of the Sonoma Land Trust, who have been working with a coalition of interested groups including the county, to try to keep some services for the developmentally disabled on the site and to ease the impact of the closure on residents and employees as well as to make sure the prime property at the base of Sonoma Mountain, which includes a multitude of buildings as well as vast open spaces, trails, a camp and a lake, is preserved and maintained in some form for public use.
Kathleen Miller, co-president of the parent group, whose son, Danny, is autistic and suffers from mental illness, had pushed for the state to set aside some part of the aging campus for a treatment center for people like her son who she believes will have a hard time adjusting in the community. The state instead, is creating four homes sprinkled throughout the greater Bay Area especially equipped to deal with clients with difficult behavior problems, McGuire said.
But Miller thanked officials for trying and called out Gorin for pushing hard.
“Susan never stopped talking about that position. It wasn’t always a popular position to take but Susan is not a person that is deterred in her commitment and her belief by what is politically expedient,” she said.
They claimed one victory with the opening last week in Santa Rosa of an $11.5 million comprehensive health care clinic especially geared to people with developmental disabilities and headed up by Dr. Anne French, who was a physician at SDC for 11 years. The parents group included in their day of thanks Naomi Fuchs, the chief executive officer of Santa Rosa Community Health, for helping to see it to fruition.
“It goes to our core values and mission that health care is a fundamental right for all people and that everyone deserve the same opportunity for a full and meaningful life,” Fuchs told the group of largely older and elderly family advocates, many of whom have been watching out for the welfare of their disabled children and siblings at SDC for decades.