Diana Dooley, secretary of the state's Health and Human Services agency, yesterday announced formation of a task force to take a hard look at the viability of closing four developmental centers in California.
"I don't know if the four developmental centers we operate can all close," Dooley said. "I want to hear from the stakeholders with an open mind. Clearly there is a problem with these centers, but we also have to address the fiscal issues. If they cannot operate, then we should look at a timeline for closing them."
Developmental centers in California have come under fire recently -- with allegations of chronic abuse of patients, investigations by multiple government agencies and loss of federal certification. The state has taken a number of steps, particularly at Sonoma Developmental Center, to investigate possible abuses and improve safety of the centers' clients.
Dooley's announcement of a task force to look at the future of those centers and to provide alternatives for patients at those centers places a stamp of disapproval on the system housing patients with severe developmental disabilities.
"What we are doing now is increasingly inefficient," Dooley said. "The steps we have taken and are continuing to take are to improve the safety of people in the developmental centers. Most of the issues have been around the reaction and response to some of the conditions there."
Dooley spoke yesterday at an Assembly budget subcommittee hearing, where legislators met to discuss funding requested by the developmental centers. It's a tricky question, since some of the requested money would replace about $7 million in federal funding lost through decertification prompted by in part by the centers' failures.
"What we have seen occurring in the centers is happening on an unacceptable basis," said Assembly member Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento). "For some of us, it's a little like Iraq, that we just have to get out. You know there are going to be difficulties, but you just have to cut your losses."
Dickinson wondered about the starting point of the task force: "I don't think you want to think of it as something that can be salvaged," he said. The state, he said, may want "to start from the point that we have evidence that they should be closed and they would have to be judged on whether there's a reason for them to stay open."
Dooley nodded her head. "Message received," she said.
Assembly member Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) had a much more emotional response to the future of developmental centers.
"I want a hard closure date for these facilities," Grove said. "These antiquated, house-of-horrors institutions have no place in society today."
Marty Omoto, executive director of the California Disability Community Action Network, agreed with the overall sentiment in the budget hearing that the centers should close. But it should happen slowly, he said, and only when a strong transition plan has been implemented for what to do with the current residents in the centers.
"I strongly support the task force to look at alternatives to developmental centers," Omoto said. "This is what policy-making should be, to look at policy-making in a more deliberate way. A deliberative approach that does have a timeline, that makes sense."
Establishing a hard end date does nothing for the center residents, he said, who have multiple special needs and need highly specialized care that needs to continue in some kind of new, in-community setting.
"People's lives matter," he said. "And that's where we should focus."
The Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services yesterday delayed the decision about funding until Friday's scheduled subcommittee hearing.