(By Will Shonbrun) Changes are coming to the Sonoma Developmental Center – but what kind, and when?
The unknowns — forced by a state mandate to close the facility within 10 years – were the focus of a public meeting convened and chaired by the center’s Parent Hospital Association (PHA) President, Kathleen Miller.
Attended by Sonoma County Board of Supervisor’s Chair Susan Gorin and regional and state legislators, the March 14 meeting looked at the challenges currently facing the patients, their families, the facility’s administration, staff and over one thousand trained specialist employees, and the people of the Sonoma Valley who care deeply about the welfare of the developmentally disabled, and the land and its resources in the heart of the Valley.
In order to preserve and protect SDC’s patient population and its vital services a coalition has been formed by Supervisor Gorin with the stated purpose of working to: 1. Retain the Sonoma Developmental Center services on the property, and explore other complementary and appropriate uses within the footprint of the facilities, and 2. Advocate for the permanent protection of the open land on the SDC property and the essential services it provides, such as habitat and movement corridors for wildlife, clean and ample drinking water, a place of beauty for us o enjoy, and carbon sequestration, among other things, and 3. Expand public access and recreation opportunities that are compatible with the protection of the property’s conservation values, including the development of trails and connections to existing trails on Sonoma Mountain, and potentially across Sonoma Valley to the complex of protected lands within the Mayacamas Mountains.
The coalition is comprised of (among other groups): County of Sonoma, CA; Parent Hospital Assoc.; Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District; Sonoma County Board of Supervisors; Sonoma County Regional Parks Dept.; Sonoma County Water Agency; Sonoma Ecology Center and the Sonoma Land Trust.
The panel members at the meeting were elected officials and representatives from Sonoma County and state, among them: State Senator Mike McGuire, Assemblyman Bill Dodd, and representatives from State Senator Lois Wolk, Assemblyman Mark Levine and Congressman Mike Thompson. All were in accord that it is of extreme importance that SDC remain open, an opinion welcomed by more than 200 people in attendance concerned about the fate of the developmentally disabled and their families.
More than a budget item
The meeting was in part convened to address the state Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) recommendation that the Center be shut down within 10 years due to budgetary constraints resulting from a dwindling patient population of less than 500 residents, and on the tail of that a recent bill, SB 639, introduced by state Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Riverside County, that calls for closing the facility in three years.
It seems the state set on closing all of California’s developmental centers, move the patients into community settings and sell the lands to the highest bidders, going so far as to stipulate that the state make economic development among the highest priorities for the site’s future uses as per a bill, SB 944, authored by state Senator Norma Torres, D-Pomona.
In response to the LAO’s projected 10-year shutdown the county-led coalition emphasized that the health and wellbeing of the residents must be the number one priority and not the state’s bottom line.
In a joint statement to the state legislature a delegation of county and regional legislators, among them Senators McGuire and Wolk, Assemblymen Dodd, Levine and Wood and Supervisor Gorin, said, “You simply cannot put a dollar figure on the health and well-being of some of the neediest and most medically fragile people in our state. Our first priority has to be patient care. Some of the residents have lived at the Sonoma Developmental Center for decades, and we have to ensure these services continue.”
Despite plans to move physically incapacitated and mentally ill developmental center patients into community-based facilities on the part of some state elected officials, there is no indication or substantive data offered to indicate how these individuals would fair in these alternative settings.
In her address to those at the meeting, Miller emphasized certain goals: 1. To create a safety net at SDC for those who can’t make it out in community settings, and 2. To join the goals of the Coalition to protect open space, which will continue to allow those behavior clients a safe place to walk off their anxiety and mental illness while they recover in the crisis setting, and 3. Prevent the rapid closure template from being applied to SDC in the haste to add money to the general fund, and 4. Work with the community to explore other complementary uses for the site within the built footprint.
Among the many speakers from those gathered was Dr. Markley S. Sutton, a licensed psychologist who worked at SDC for 31 years and was Chief Psychologist on the Executive Management Committee and Head of Psychology Services. In addition, Sutton worked for the Department of Developmental Services for 36 years and for which he did a survey that concluded, among other findings, “without the developmental centers those individuals with complex behavior issues will be at high risk for abuse, transfer, mistreatment and lack of resources.”
John McCaull, Land Acquisition Project Manager for the Sonoma Land Trust, maintained that, “The future of SDC is an issue that unites our community,” he said. “If we keep working together we can take our destiny in our own hands as a community and convince the state to not engage in ‘business as usual’ practices. We need to reframe the debate from closure to transformation.” McCaull added that although the members of the Coalition might have different interests, they hold a shared commitment that “the needs of the SDC residents, the work force and the land are linked and inseparable.”
Beth Hadley spok as a special education teacher who has worked in three different California State Hospitals and also the community over a 35-year period. “I can tell you that there are unique and beneficial services at SDC that are not available in the community settings,” she said. “SDC could be financially viable if these services, such as custom-made wheelchairs, custom shoes, dentists who know how to work with severely disabled patients, and more, were made available on an out-patient basis. Also the reported cost per patient would be reduced if admissions were reopened; they have been closed for several years.”
The number of people against closure is growing rapidly, according to Tom Whitworth, a 25-year Sonoma Valley resident who advocates for more social and ecological sustainability in the Valley. “The bill being introduced by a southern state senator to close all facilities in 2-3 years is basically advocating state sponsored euthanasia, because we know there are no alternatives for the acutely medically challenged people left as SDC.”
Whitworth continued, “I am more proud of SDC for protecting the vulnerable and providing hundreds of well paid jobs with unique skill sets in Sonoma Valley than I will ever be for the hundred wineries, tasting rooms, luxury hotels and spa that do nothing but provide minimum wage jobs.”
Helen Rowntree, a self-described concerned Sonoma resident, maintained that, “Across the country, we are failing the developmentally disabled and the mentally ill. SDC and Fairview DC in Orange County must not be closed,” she said. “They should become the centers of last resort for severely disabled clients that cannot survive in community homes. They could open their doors to more services for those with related problems: those with Alzheimer’s, autism, and addiction. Rename them the Northern, and Southern, California Center for Developmental and Mental Health Care.”
Gregg Montgomery has lived in Sonoma Valley for 45 years and has spent 41 years working at SDC as a Psychiatric Technician and Assistive Technologist. He said he was
tired of reading negative articles in Bay Area newspapers about SDC. “There’s never a kind word. These columnists really don’t have a clue. They’re simply a mouthpiece for the big money and political interests that have their own agenda.
Having worked at SDC for over 40 years, Montgomery said, “I can tell you definitively that this facility offers the highest quality care you can find for society’s most compromised and severely disabled population. You won’t find a more caring and committed staff of professionals for our most vulnerable citizens. The services that Sonoma Developmental Center provides are unsurpassed, in my eyes. See if you can find a community based group-home that offers anything close,” he said. “I doubt that you will.”
Vision for the future
Supervisor Gorin and the coalition she is heading are encouraging county and regional legislators and county-based organizations to develop a “master plan” for the center that would both maintain it as a highly skilled and broad care facility on its current site and expand its use as a community resource that would generate self-sustaining income.
One possibility under discussion was including Santa Rosa Junior College on a portion of the sprawling site. The coalition has referred to the model of the Presidio Trust, an agency formed in San Francisco to preserve those lands from development, as a possible template to use for SDC lands in conjunction with its current use. It’s commonly acknowledged that the more than 1,000 acres of SDC land is some of the most naturally beautiful landscape in Sonoma County. It’s safe to say that most of the people in the Valley consider it a treasure beyond price and a resource held in common that should never be up for grabs by commercial development interests.
Ideas for preserving SDC as a full care facility for its residents and others in need for those critical services, its historic structures, wildlife corridor and naturally diverse open space regions, and linking it to complementary uses that will serve the common good will be discussed at a workshop at the Vintage House in Sonoma on May 2. It is open to the public, admission is free and all ideas and input are welcome and encouraged.