The Sonoma Developmental Center, with roughly 900 acres, 140 buildings, two reservoirs, until recently an annual payroll of $88 million, and one of the most scenic locations in all of Sonoma County, has for years been the focus of a delightful paradox.
Which is this: One of the most coveted properties in a Valley abundantly occupied with people of great personal wealth, was home to a population of the state’s most disabled, physically and cognitively challenged and financially vulnerable residents. What, many people with a taste for irony have asked, could be more ironic than that?
The paradox may be charming, but it also may add to the vulnerability of a property soon to have no truly deep-pocketed advocates. It will be sitting out there exposed while myriad moneyed interests circle with predatory intent.
The pages that follow are an attempt to assess the dimensions of that paradox, the issues before the stakeholders and the state, and the fate of those fragile souls who had the almost beatific experience of living innocently in paradise.
The content that follows does little more than scratch the surface of a dilemma with no easy end in sight. But we hope in some small way, it adds to your understanding of a challenge we all must face.
Making Sense of SDC
Shutdown looms as questions increase.
Story & photos David Bolling
The Sonoma Developmental Center, which once held an estimated 3,000 developmentally disabled residents and at least that many staff, is winding down its programs as the remaining population is “transitioned” into community-based houses scattered around the Bay Area.
As of September 26, the most recent date for which public records are available, 45 residents were still being housed at the Center, and that number is significantly smaller today.
Of the hundreds of staff who provided around-the-clock care for residents on the Eldridge campus when the incremental shutdown began, 67 have been paired with the clients they served at SDC, thus continuing beneficial relationships based on years of mutual trust and experience. For other former residents, however, several conservators report worries that the loss of longstanding relationships between caregivers and non-verbal or behaviorally-challenged residents, with decades of familiarity and mutual understanding, have been disrupted and lost, placing those clients at greater risk.
And while SDC caregivers are primarily state licensed psychiatric technicians (“psyche techs”) earning, according to state records, an average hourly wage of $50.10, with benefits, the average pay for unlicensed caregivers typically hired by private, for-profit community care homes, is about $13 per hour, with substantially fewer benefits, if any. And, according to state statistics, the average tenure-per-job for unlicensed caregivers is less than a year.
By the end of November, most of the remaining SDC residents will be gone, and the state is committed to emptying all residences before the end of the year.
Beginning in January, the facility will enter a phase of what the California Department of General Services (DGS) calls a “warm shutdown,” meaning that former residency and office buildings will be shuttered and locked, but power and heat will continue to be provided. The state’s current budget provides funds to maintain this status until June 30, 2019. What happens after that is anyone’s guess, and the subject of growing concern, conversation and disagreement.
A decision will be influenced by and directly connected to the state’s 2019–20 budget, and will be decided by a newly seated legislature and Governor. No one involved in the conversations and negotiations is willing to speculate on what the decision will be or when, it will be definitively made. Some members of the ad hoc SDC Coalition—a group of public and private stakeholders—believe the state will fund the warm shutdown for at least another year beyond July 1, 2019. Failing to do so without a responsible entity to assume control, could make the property increasingly vulnerable to vandalism, theft and liability.
The SDC employee level, once estimated above 3,000, was 412 fulltime equivalent positions on September 30, and the state has budgeted for 89 positions through the warm shutdown, including police and fire services.
That will result in a substantial drop in state expenditures given that the SDC payroll was close to $82 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year, rose to $88.6 million in 2014-15, before dropping to $62 million for 2017–18.
Details about the warm shutdown are sparse, including whether or not public access will be allowed on the center’s playing fields, on the privately built and funded ropes course, around the popular reservoir with it’s heavily used 1.5 mile circumference trail, or on other trails that crisscross the property.
According to Nancy Lungren, assistant director for communications at the state’s Department of Developmental Services (DDS), “A decision has not been made about the status of the Ropes Course during warm shutdown.” And, she adds, “Similar to the Ropes Course, a decision has not been made regarding public use of the playing fields.”
The issue of future rules for public access to the land at large remains ambiguous at best. According to Lungren, “The property utilized by SDC and its non-public trails has been maintained for the enjoyment of SDC’s residents and staff. The land generally described as ‘above Fern Lake’ was transferred to the Department of State Parks several years ago and they have responsibility for maintenance of that area, with the exception of the Camp Via area. Any future maintenance will be determined along with the disposition of the property.”
Local residents, used to relatively free access to the SDC trail system, which connects seamlessly with the adjacent Jack London State Historic Park at the west end, and the Sonoma County Regional Park on the east end, have expressed concern about possible exclusion from the property. Some Glen Ellen residents have wondered aloud if the state intends to fence off parts of the SDC property from public access. Lungren reports only that, “There is a 2018–19 budget for enhanced security. However, DDS has not yet determined what specific security measures will be utilized.” She adds that, security and fire services will be maintained “consistent with the needs of the facility.”
Another issue of concern to at least a few people closely connected to SDC is the state’s willingness to allow current leaseholders to remain on site. The facility’s most prominent tenant is the Sonoma Ecology Center (SEC), which occupies offices and a field station beside Sonoma Creek just across the Harney Street Bridge (where recently “transitioned” resident Buck spent years meditatively tossing stones into the creek). SEC executive director Richard Dale reports receiving a written notice announcing the end of the organization’s lease and a deadline for moving out, but both State Senator Mike McGuire of Healdsburg, and a DGS spokesman verbally assured Dale the Ecology Center could stay.
This, despite the state’s stated opposition to allowing interim uses for portions of the property. Some participants in the ongoing SDC discussions have pointed out that allowing interim leaseholders to occupy some parts of the campus would benefit overall security and help defray warm shutdown costs.
Meanwhile, the closest thing to a concrete proposal being discussed among Coalition members is a Public/Private trust, modeled in part on the Presidio Trust which successively took control of the San Francisco Presidio from the U.S. Army over a 10-year transition period. But any such plan would require substantial planning and development funds, which neither the state nor the county has yet expressed a willingness or the ability to provide.
First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, who has been a prominent leader of the Coalition and an outspoken proponent of developing a local, community-based management plan, said in early November that the state has expressed interest in joining a Joint Powers Agreement with the County, the Sonoma County Water Agency and the Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space District. But the County of Sonoma, already battered by it’s failure to find an equation that would win public support for a proposed, and badly needed, housing development on its Chanate Road property in Santa Rosa, seems reluctant to tackle another large land use challenge at the moment.
Gorin says she is nevertheless “cautiously optimistic” that the county will ultimately participate in discussions about a possible role in SDC’s future.
The simplest step the county could take, many observers say, is to accept the lower (eastern) SDC open Space as an addition to the adjacent, county-owned Sonoma Valley Regional Park.
A similar hand-off of SDC’s upper open space to California State Parks as a second addition to Jack London State Park, has also been proposed and discussed. But both transactions would entail increased expenses by the recipient parties who would have to maintain extra acreage. And, more importantly, the state emphatically refuses to consider spinning off the two open space sections separate from a resolution for the use of the central campus.
There remain far more questions than answers about the Future of SDC. The only thing known with any certainty at this point, is that nothing is certain.
The View From Inside
Administrators Aleana Carreon and
JJ Fernandez reflect on four decades
Photos Steven Krause
You can’t accurately understand the Sonoma Developmental Center without understanding Aleana Carreon and JJ Fernandez. They are the heartwood you find if you drill into the trunk of the SDC tree. They both got jobs there as teenagers, they both worked their way up the institutional ladder, they both exhibit a kind of 360-degree understanding of the institution, its programs, populations, its protocols, its problems and its politics, not all of which—by any stretch of the imagination—will they share with you.
Aleana (pronounced Ah-leena) and JJ are the administrative backbone of the facility. Aleana, the current and last executive director, has spent her entire professional life at SDC—except for six excruciating months at Napa State Hospital.
“I came right back,” she says. “I’ve worked in a lot of different areas here in the facility. I’ve worked in practically every residence and every program, and I’ve done almost every job in the clinical side. I was a SPTA unit supervisor, a program manager. I was clinical director. There were almost 2,000 clients, I believe [when I came here], there were 50 residences, with 45 people in a residence, and that was before we had bedrooms. We had dorms and the beds, you’ve probably seen the old pictures of beds lined up. I made a lot of those beds.
“Our bathrooms weren’t private; they were large rooms with toilets in them, basically. The showers were like the old ones from high school. And then they remodeled, I think in the ‘80s, so that we had private bathrooms and showers and four people to a bedroom, and that was quite a change.”
Both SDC veterans speak with sincere affection about the relationships they established with the residents. “I didn’t know if I was going to stay here,” says Aleana, “but I fell in love with the residents, and I had some good mentors that taught me how to teach people to do more independent things, and I fell in love with it. Five, ten years ago, I was committed to that goal of helping people become better people; the residents, number one, and then as I became a supervisor, the staff as well, because the staff are the ones that make sure the residents get that benefit.
“I’ve always felt very proud of what we do here,” adds Aleana, “even though we’ve had some negative things in the past here, obviously. But overall, I felt very proud of what happened here and the work that we did with the individuals to help them become more independent, and get them ready to move into community settings. I support the move into community settings. I think it’s a good thing for the people that are moving. Even though it’s really sad to say goodbye to SDC, I’m happy that the residents are getting a new experience in their lives.”
Therein, of course, lies an issue of significant disagreement, a sizable contingent of SDC parents and conservators believing the center’s bucolic setting and access to the outdoors provides a unique therapeutic value that can’t be duplicated in small, community-based homes in residential neighborhoods.
Aleana doesn’t buy it. “I am somebody who loves nature,” she says. “I go backpacking and camping. I love nature, and I loved this campus for that reason. I hike all over the place. I love it here. So I think that people that have lived here all their lives, and this is all they know, they’re now having new experiences. The people who move out, I follow their post-monitoring visits, and I’m seeing some lovely stories of them being able to go to museums and just have a different experience, a different view of life.”
JJ Fernandez looks 30, says he’s 47, and started at SDC when he was 17. He says he would retire, but he’s not old enough. “I have the years, I just don’t have the age. It’s the one time in my life I wish I was older.”
JJ’s job has been to be the backup for a succession of executive directors. His title is “Assistant to the Executive Director and Public Information Officer.” Which means he’s a classic second lieutenant, a consummate consigliere of sorts, a first mate, an unflappable, always upbeat spokesman, buffer, and portal to the executive inner workings of the center.
He probably knows more about the center than anyone else still on site, and he still expresses an enthusiasm and passion for the job, even as it slips ever more quickly out of sight. When it’s all over, he hopes to keep doing what he’s doing now.
“I’m looking for another job,” he says. “I’m not old enough to retire and so I’m hoping. My goal is, I want to stay with the department and continue to serve people with developmental disabilities, because I just know this is my passion. When you work here, it’s just love; we love what we do.”
So, if the world is listening, JJ is looking for a job.
Meanwhile, there’s a story both Aleana and JJ feel compelled to tell the world, again. It’s about how they, their inestimable staff, and a whole bunch of first responders and Glen Ellen citizens, successfully evacuated 241 severely disabled people from the path of the raging wildfire that was chewing at the northeastern flank of SDC.
A year ago, on the night of October 9, says Aleana, “It was dark when I got here, and as it was getting light all I could see is smoke. I didn’t see flames, I just saw smoke. I was working out of this building, in the lobby out there, giving directions to staff to pack and move here and move there, along with our Office of Protective Services commander. He was here with me as well.
“Then we heard that the fire was reaching our property to the east side, and the determination was made that we would need to evacuate. We had transportation but we didn’t have enough transportation for all 241 people, so we started taking people to the Veterans Hall and to Adele Harrison Middle School in Sonoma. We were shuttling them back and forth with buses.
“Then we were also bringing people over to our gymnasium to get them away from this side, that was on fire. I would get calls from JJ saying that we can see the flames and embers are flying, and we need more people to push. We had Glen Ellen neighbors coming over here and pushing people [in wheelchairs] up to the gym for us.
“All kinds of staff that weren’t on duty came in, and people who had left to go to other jobs came in. It was amazing. And at one point we were having people come up to the lobby, clients, residents come up to the lobby for safety. Our commander had reached out for help, and at one point 30-plus Alameda Police Department cars showed up in front of this building here, and I sent them down to the N-F side of the house to help push clients up here.
“We didn’t have all the vehicles that we could just load everybody up. JJ was out there helping people push clients up here, and he saw all the Alameda police cars come down. So he waved them over and they came running down, and grabbed wheelchairs and started pushing. It was pretty dramatic.”
JJ picks up the story. “And when Alameda showed up they brought vehicles, but they were minivans, and our clients wouldn’t fit in them. They had every good intention, but thank God they showed up, because when they came running down from Arnold Drive to help us, we were at a point where we had no more vehicles down there, and there was only a handful of us staff, but there were still two homes with about 20 people in each that were in wheelchairs that we had to push to this side of the campus to the gym. You could just feel the panic with staff, and then, just to see all these officers come running down, it just was incredible. We all started yelling. To this moment, it’s just amazing, the feeling. They were amazing. It was like they were superheroes; they swept in and swept out.
“And when we left the school of nursing side of the campus, which is right next to the residential area, we came to the gym and then the fire had crossed Arnold Drive where the Glen Ellen Bridge is so we could see the flames and the smoke right there, and that’s when they were like, ‘You have to leave this minute.’”
What followed was a series of Keystone Cops kind of madcap serial evacuations, as the spreading wildfire chased SDC evacuees out of Altimira and Adele Harrison Middle Schools, and out of the Sonoma Vets Building to eventual refuge at the Dixon May Fair grounds, northwest and some 50 miles away from Sonoma.
Explains Aleana, “We ended up setting up a little developmental center, and it was kind of like a MASH camp. All the agencies got together and provided us everything we needed. We had large tents for sleeping quarters. The residents slept in the fair buildings, and we had them set up by residence where they lived, so they had familiar staff. We had extra nurses and extra doctors on hand. We got staff from other facilities and state hospitals.”
They also had a movie night. “I’ll never forget the movie night image,” says JJ. “We voted on the movie, and it was Wonder Woman. And when it started, you had the National Guard, highway patrol, staff, residents, everybody, just sitting together, eating popcorn, watching this movie.”
A Man Named Buck
SDC’s most famous resident is gone.
Story David Bolling
Photos David Bolling, Christian Pease & Joe Garappolo
They call him Buck, and he may be the most famous resident of the Sonoma Developmental Center over the past 20 years. But if you ask anyone who knows anything about him, no one will say a word on the record.
Given the stringent enforcement of HIPPA regulations, the additional desire to protect a vulnerable population from intrusion, abuse and embarrassment, the liability risks, and the instinctive distrust of transparency in many state bureaucracies, it’s understandable that the California Department of Developmental Services made it all but impossible for anyone but SDC staff members to get to know Buck.
That’s not his birth name, which is (according to a couple of sources) Doug. But Buck is what everyone calls him, and Buck is the name of a profoundly thoughtful (and funny) plaque placed on the concrete railing of the Marian Rose White Bridge over Sonoma Creek, which simply states, “The Buck Stops Here.”
The plaque is there because almost every day, year-in and year-out, Buck would show up to methodically throw stones in the creek, often lugging gunnysacks of gravel to the bridge. Buck is a hefty guy, and strong, but according to some estimates he is over 70 years old and has arthritis, so when hauling rocks to the bridge became too arduous, the grounds crews began delivering piles of gravel to the east end of the bridge for him.
According to sources, Buck’s parents brought him to SDC when he was 5 years old and left him. On his first night, a caregiver reportedly found him sobbing and trying to open an upper story window. She took him in her arms and held him through the night.
Buck is said to be nonverbal, but “very intelligent,” and communicates in part through colors. He is very particular about his color palette, especially with clothes, and associates yellow with peanut M&Ms. He is partial to orange baseball hats, which makes him a de facto San Francisco Giants fan.
As Buck grew up, he came to be known as “the Enforcer,” says one former staff member. “He was very strong and could keep unruly or combative residents in line.”
One source recalls operating a forklift when a resident walked dangerously close to the machine. He couldn’t get the resident to move out of the way and didn’t want to leave the machine, when Buck showed up, lifted the resident by the lapels, moved him out of the way, and set him back on his feet.
Buck, the source says, would perform similar actions in exchange for a candy bar. “He was very intelligent and very stubborn. He would eat what he wanted to eat, nothing else. He wasn’t social, he didn’t take part in most social activities, but he would sometimes laugh abruptly when he was happy, or grunt when he was angry. But mostly, he kept to himself.”
The same source said he understood Buck was being moved to a community home in Santa Rosa. He said that he, and other former employees, are more concerned about the impact of moving Buck then they are about any former residents. No new living environment, no matter how attractive and inviting, can compare to the experience Buck had at SDC, said the source. “He is strong, stubborn and independent, very much used to having free rein, doing what he wants to do, going where he wants to go. SDC is the ideal environment for him. He’s certainly not going to have that creek. It’s hard to imagine he won’t quickly decline.”
Brien and Susan—A Brother’s Story
It help’s when your brother is a determined attorney.
Brien Farrell is the former City Attorney for Santa Rosa, he is an advocate for patients’ rights and the brother of Susan, a developmentally disabled adult who, until recently, spent most of her life at the Sonoma Developmental Center. She is now at a spacious, community home in Fairfield with a staff of well-trained, state-licensed caregivers. She is lucky. Without Brien as her advocate, she could have had a very different outcome.
“Over the last 10 years,” he explains, “I asked at my sister’s IPP (Individualized Program Plan) meetings in the face of pressure to consent to a community placement of her, ‘Give me the address of a home that I can visit and then investigate all of the necessarily ancillary services so I can assure myself that the care will be roughly equivalent and I’ll go visit it.’ They never provided me with an address or contact person. And it never appeared in the minutes of those IPPs that I made that request.”
Brien is explaining what it has taken to ensure that the care his sister receives in a community-based, residential home, is equal to the care she received for decades at SDC, where a unique and unquantifiable quality existed that can’t be duplicated in community housing.
“There’s now research, that should come as no surprise, that for patients at a hospital, if they get to see a tree out of the window, they recover more quickly than those who don’t. How much more necessary is access to nature for people who are fragile? But for the most fragile, this immersion in nature is precious. And they (many former SDC residents) now are living in nice homes, in some cases very nice homes, in comfortable subdivisions, but they’re living in sterile conditions and the ideal field trip is considered to be a trip to the local mall. And that’s viewed as evidence of integration.
“My sister does not do malls. She doesn’t like crowds. She doesn’t like lots of noise. She would go in and out of the door at Bentley (SDC residence hall) and look at a creek habitat, and she chose to go in and out of that door 100 times a day. She can walk, but she’s unsteady and can’t walk far, but what she would gaze at, is that creek.”
Brien Farrell is quick to acknowledge the excellent level of care his sister is getting in her Fairfield home, thanks in good part to his persistent demands.
“I do want to stress that she is being provided very good care, extremely good care. The day program coordinator where she goes five days a week for six hours was her day program coordinator at SDC. She was the best at SDC. She had been Susan’s daycare program coordinator for maybe eight years at SDC. And Susan has a psych tech who knew her at SDC who’s now working 40 plus hours per week at the home. She has the same psychologist as she had at SDC, and these are all things I negotiated for and fought for, and I drew a line and said, ‘She will not leave unless these things are in place and you will have to have a deputy sheriff arrest both of us to remove us.’”
Farrell credits many others for helping make this level of care available. “We are grateful to (Sonoma County) Supervisor Susan Goran, Senator Mike Maguire, Senator Bill Dodd, Darrel Steinberg who we had retained as our Sacramento advocate, and Senator Holly Mitchell who was the chair of a key committee and forced DDS to go to mediation with us.”
He agrees that the benefits his sister receives should be available to SDC transfers.
“We are discovering rapidly how superior the services are we are receiving compared to those for people who never lived at SDC, who have similar challenges, and that’s wrong and we need to expand our family advocacy group and we’re doing what we. And, that’s our biggest challenge, to unite with families.
Farrell elaborates on this point. “That there is no family advocacy association outside the developmental center is shocking and wrong, and I can’t explain how that gap has come to exist. Families together can have a voice in Sacramento, on their own, they cannot. The system uses this expression ‘person-centered care,’ and I resent that because, as central as person-centered planning and care are, they are no substitute for community issues, such as access to quality medical care and many other widely shared challenges.
“One of the things SDC had was a community, and that was evident not just in the Halloween celebration, but so many, many other special events and there was a community, and that doesn’t exist outside.”
Outside SDC—A Natural Resource Assessment
So many kinds of treasures, so little time to protect them.
The challenge in describing the 945 acres of the Sonoma Developmental Center is that it offers so many kinds of treasures, all in one place. Often, people decide to protect land because of just one or two important features. With the SDC property, it’s almost overwhelming how many ways the land is bountiful.
First, there’s a treasure chest of diverse habitats: rambling oak savannahs with giant heritage trees, three year-round streams, several redwood groves, and mixed hardwood and other forest types. Sonoma Creek, where it runs through SDC, supports beaver, otter, threatened steelhead trout, Chinook salmon, and endangered California freshwater shrimp. The valley bottomlands host a large reservoir ringed by blue oak woodlands, and embraced by a wet meadow complex at a scale no longer found anywhere else in the valley.
Then there’s the fact that all these habitat types are connected, not cut off from each other. Animals that need both meadow and forest (like foxes), or both wetland and forest (like salamanders and frogs), can find what they need. As the climate warms, or even when the seasons change, unlike in most smaller wild places, at SDC animals can easily move where they need, to find food or mates.
SDC’s connectivity is remarkable at this small scale, and also at a much grander scale. In the entire North Bay, there is nowhere else that largely undeveloped land connects two ranges of hills, the way SDC connects the Sonoma Mountain range to the Mayacamas Mountains. This connection, or corridor, is noted in state-wide maps that point out SDC’s critical importance in connecting areas as distant as Point Reyes and the vast Blue Ridge-Berryessa area.
Now let’s talk about water. Reliable water is scarce, and getting scarcer, for people and nature. SDC’s long slope is on the wetter, west side of Sonoma Valley. Its natural system of seeps, creeks and wetlands, combined with its old water delivery system, with senior water rights, makes it attractive for both human water supply and for sustaining populations of water-dependent species as diverse as steelhead trout, seep-spring monkeyflower and Western pond turtle.
SDC offers stunning vistas from many viewpoints, on the property itself and from afar. From the glowing fall colors of the oaks on Arnold Drive, to the misty fog wraiths on Sonoma Mountain, to the gorgeous rolling meadows below Fern Lake, to the dappled woodlands above Lake Suttonfield, to the delicate wildflowers under the rarely visited forests up the mountain, the property generously offers beauty to everyone living in or visiting Sonoma Valley.
And that beauty could be even more accessible. Trails and vista points could be designed that serve serious hikers, connecting to hundreds of acres of parks and protected land on Sonoma Mountain, and also take more gentle paths on the valley bottom, to bring people of all abilities in contact with lakes, oak trees and mariposa lilies.
All in all, the public land of SDC provides us an amazing abundance of benefits. As SDC’s many stakeholders rethink its future, we should design with all this in mind. How can the roads, buildings and operations of SDC be shaped and reshaped to foster all these assets? Maybe the future built area should make a slightly different footprint to protect the wildlife corridor and groundwater recharge, for example. It’s exciting to work together and rise to the occasion presented here, to be creative enough that our human use of this precious place can celebrate and add to its natural abundance.
Caitlin Cornwall is a biologist and Research Program Manager at the Sonoma Ecology Center. She authored this article for the premier issue of Valley of the Moon magazine in 2015. Since then, the natural resource conditions described here are substantially unchanged, notwithstanding the increased ecological pressures brought by climate change.