The End of an Era

Story & Photos  David Bolling

At the intersection of Wilson Street and Arnold Drive, toward the south edge of the Sonoma
Developmental Center, there is a cautionary message affixed to a stop sign. The message reads, “Fasten Seat Belts Before Leaving.”

The perfect irony of that message cannot be lost on the remaining members of the SDC family—the waning workforce of caregivers and facility staff, even, perhaps, a few of the remaining residents, whose number fell to 132 on March 28, the most recent population count publicly available.

Fastening seatbelts is something motorists do to protect themselves from injury and death when venturing onto public streets and roads. The State of California, through the auspices of the Department of Developmental Services (DDS), is asking us to believe that those 132 vulnerable souls, and the 48 who were moved out (or died) between December 27 and March 28, and the 65 who were moved or died between September 27 and December 27, and in fact all those 260 residents who have ceased living at SDC since the state ordered the facility’s closure in the summer of 2015, have their own metaphorical seatbelts, that they are now being housed with a level of care, supervision and safety equivalent to the care they have had at SDC, many of them for most of their lives.

There is some reason to question that assumption, based on the testimony and experience of some caregivers who have followed the “transitioned” residents into small “community” care homes outside the SDC campus, some spread between Santa Rosa and Sacramento.

HIPPA regulations and job security issues make it difficult, if not impossible, to confirm or disprove allegations of inadequate care, and no one interviewed for this article alleged deliberate abuse. But one of the inevitable consequences of disaggregating hundreds of severely disabled people from a central facility staffed for 24/7 medical care, where everyone’s medical history is intimately familiar to care givers and medical staff, and where the training and experience of caregiving staff is assured by salary levels significantly higher than those in the private sector, is that medically and psychologically vulnerable residents will decline in emotional and physical health.

And according to one health care professional familiar with conditions in some community facilities to which SDC residents have been transitioned, there have already been some significant lapses in appropriate drug management and an absence of understanding of the best care and treatment protocols for some residents, who may have been put at risk.

The dilemma that parents and guardians face as this gradual shutdown unfolds, is that the mutual support, and strength in numbers, their collective presence provided is eroded and gradually eliminated. They lose the opportunity to speak with one voice for the care of their loved ones; they become a dispersed and muted chorus.

None of this is meant to suggest callous disregard on the part of state bureaucrats. But it is hard for some SDC parents, and for some members of the greater Glen Ellen community involved for decades in the affairs of SDC, to ignore the impression that SDC residents have never been afforded the care and respect of able-bodied, fully-functioning members of the community. Were SDC a veterans home with similarly vulnerable residents and similar per-resident cost-of-service expenses, some critics have asked, would it have suffered a similar fate?

The pressure to close SDC came in part because, once new admissions were denied, the cost of maintaining a declining population had skyrocketed to as much as $500,000 per resident a year. Many people argued for downsizing the Center’s footprint while continuing to utilize the unique medical and adaptive care resources available, including dental care for patients among the most difficult to treat.

But any effort to preserve some level of on-site care, ran head-on into two government edicts—one from the federal government and one from the state. The State of California had already committed itself in principle to phasing out congregate living institutions, following passage of the Lanterman Act, which established regional centers to promote access to more independent living for people with developmental disabilities.

Meanwhile, a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision from Georgia, in Olmstead v. L.C and E.W., established that the “integration mandate” of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires public agencies to provide services “in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities.” When the Olmstead Decision required that residents living in congregant facilities have equal access to community-based living environments, the decision inspired a federal push to apply the ADA provisions to large institution environments nationwide, and led to gradual withdrawal of federal Medicare funding for large institutional programs, including SDC.

As these events and pressures unfolded, an ad hoc group called the SDC Coalition, with some 12 stakeholder organizations, began to meet periodically to map out plans for protecting the open space on the property and keep it out of the hands of commercial developers; retaining SDC medical and care services on the property; expanding public access to the facility’s nearly 1,000 acres; and develop a proposal for long term, self-sustaining alternative uses.

Last fall, the state contracted with a nationally-prominent urban planning and landscape design company, called Wallace Roberts Todd (WRT), to produce a complete site assessment to determine the condition of the facility’s 142 buildings, surrounding grounds, and to explore the best future uses of the property.

The assessment was shut down for months by the October wildfires, which heavily impacted parts of SDC but did little significant structural damage. The WRT assessment is now underway again, but preliminary findings already reveal that a majority of the physical plant is outdated, obsolete or unusable, including the massive central utility plant that pushes cold water and steam heat around most of the campus. Dave Bissell, the former SDC plant manager who oversaw the utility plant and is now chief engineer at the Yountville Veterans home, said during a recent meeting of the Glen Ellen Public Forum that, by his estimate, it would take more than $1 billion to bring the system up to contemporary standards.

That figure may be inflated, but it underscores the realization that whatever happens to the SDC campus, a long term solution will be extremely expensive.

Already, Governor Brown’s 2018–2019 budget has $8.8 million allocated to pay for a “warm shutdown” of the campus for the first six months of 2019.

John McCaul, Land Acquisition Program Manager for the Sonoma Land Trust, who has been a liaison with state agencies, said during the Glen Ellen Forum meeting that the state still has no idea about what to do with the property, and that the burning questions that need immediate answers are, “How are we going to make decisions, and who would make decisions.”

A consulting organization—the Portrero Group—was hired by the SDC Coalition to explore viable options for the property and reached the conclusion that the best model for a viable future would be creation of a non-profit trust with the sole mission of taking care of the property. A similar model was developed for the San Francisco Presidio, which assumed responsibility for developing the former military base on the San Francisco headlands, including Crissy Field. The Presidio Trust was given 10 years to make the property financially self-sufficient before the federal government would seize and sell it. The Trust was successful and the 1,500-acre Presidio is now part of the Golden Gate National Park system and a major conservation success story.

McCaull reported that, in order for a similar trust model to work, state legislation would be required to provide seed money, with a realistic grace period to prove the concept. And a viable financial plan would have to be in place to convince legislators, and nonprofit funders, that the proposal could work.

The greatest challenge confronting development of an SDC Trust idea (one suggestion is to name it the Eldridge Trust, invoking the historical place name) is time. McCaull said that because Gov. Jerry Brown is sympathetic to a community-based outcome that preserves the site, there is an urgent need to act while he is still in office. And, he added, there was a long-shot chance of getting an authorization adopted in the Governor’s “May-revise” budget to allocate state money to jump start the trust proposal.

The trust proposal, he said, “gives us time to develop and execute a plan. We don’t have all the answers. We don’t even have all the questions. But the trust offers the best opportunity for ongoing community input.”

First District Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin also addressed the gathering, and strongly endorsed the trust concept. “We’ve been talking with the state for five years,” she said, “and now we have to come up with a model of financial sustainability in six weeks. We need to know what a trust concept would look like, and whether it would gain the trust of the community. We need to get our act together, because the powers of government will not have confidence in our model unless we have consensus and a viable proposal.”

The May revise budget, McCaull concluded, will have to be adopted before the end of the month, because the Legislature is only in town until the end of August. “It is,” he concluded, “a very, very ambitious timeline.”


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