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Close to Home: Close the Sonoma Developmental Center? Let’s think this through first

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Some important things have been missing in news stories and legislative chatter about the state saving money by closing the Sonoma Development Center and moving its residents into community-based programs for people with severe disabilities. That is this: The state’s community-based system for these services is on the verge of collapse.

Why? The state of California, once the nation’s leader in providing for citizens with lifelong disabilities, has been underfunding programs for 280,000 California residents with disabilities for about two decades.

Our Golden State now spends the least amount of money of any state on services for people with a developmental disability. We are at the very bottom, below Louisiana and Mississippi. The cellar.

Funding levels for supporting people with disabilities in the community rather than in large institutions such as SDC have fallen over the past 20 years, especially since the Great Recession that began in 2007.

So relatives of the 400 residents of the Sonoma Developmental Center near Glen Ellen have every reason to be disturbed by calls for the closure of the center and a similar institution in Orange County. The state Legislative Analyst’s Office recently suggested the state close the development centers in 10 years. Republican members of the state Legislature want to close them in four.

The logic behind both proposals is that it is cheaper.

And closure proponents say people with disabilities do better living in community programs and that the state should let community-based programs handle it.

Becoming Independent, where I work, is a community-based program based in Santa Rosa. I agree that for many people with disabilities, the community is the best place to be.

Becoming Independent has been around for almost 50 years. We provide living support, jobs, educational and transportation programs to about 1,000 people in Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties. Many former SDC residents are enrolled in our programs. Were the state to close developmental centers, we would expect to be asked to provide services to some of the current SDC residents. Given adequate funding, we’re prepared to do it. It’s what we do.

But the truth is, Becoming Independent can’t do it at funding levels California now provides, and we’re not alone. For the state to assume otherwise is either the result of ignorance, apathy, shortsightedness or all three.

Fees for services that Becoming Independent provides have not been increased in 20 years. During the recession, some fees were cut. Changing guidelines for how the state funds are allocated also have reduced our operating funds by $100,000 a month.

Becoming Independent used to have monthly growth meetings. Now we have sustainability meetings.

According to the Association of Regional Center Agencies, which represents 21 state regional centers that coordinate programs such as Becoming Independent’s, many programs have already closed because of funding shortfalls.

“On the Brink of Collapse,” a report by ARCA on the extent of the crisis published last month, said 435 residential homes for the disabled, including 172 homes for children, closed between 2009 and 2014. During fiscal 2011-12, 57 day and work programs and 15 job programs closed. The primary reason: Inadequate funding.

Without any changes in Sacramento, it will only get worse.

The Association of Regional Center Agencies urges support for legislation to give providers a one-time 10 percent increase to stop the bleeding; ensure adequate and sustainable funding levels and provide 5 percent funding increases until reforms are in place.

Meanwhile, until the state honors its commitment to fund quality services in community-based settings, it seems foolhardy to add more vulnerable people to a crumbling system. We better think it through.

Luana Vaetoe, chief executive officer of Becoming Independent, is a Santa Rosa resident.

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