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Lawmakers mull next steps for developmental centers

Max Whittaker/For California Watch People with developmental disabilities and their supporters call on lawmakers to shut down the state's developmental centers. 

SACRAMENTO – State lawmakers weighed today whether to appoint an inspector general to oversee state centers for the developmentally disabled and close a center in Sonoma where patients suffered the worst instances of abuse, neglect and sexual assaults.

During a daylong hearing, members of a Senate budget subcommittee on health and human services heard testimony from state officials and advocates for the developmentally disabled but did not indicate what action they might take.

The proposal to create an inspector general met with opposition from the Department of Developmental Services, which objected to its cost. The idea also found little support among advocates and family members of the disabled, who say the state-run centers should be shut down.

The influential state Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended in its budget analysis that the Legislature create an independent Office of Inspector General to oversee the five developmental centers at a cost of $500,000 to $1 million. The inspector general would have the authority to review patient complaints, conduct audits, investigate allegations of wrongdoing and help prosecute individuals who threaten patients or staff.

Shawn Martin, representing the Legislative Analyst's Office, testified that a new layer of oversight is needed because having the Department of Developmental Services responsible for its own facilities hasn't worked.

“They have to be independent in order to be effective,” Martin said.

But Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, the most outspoken member of the Senate budget subcommittee, indicated he would favor shutting the troubled Sonoma Developmental Center and moving patients to a new center. 

“We really need to look at Sonoma’s facility,” he said. “For both the existing clientele and future residents, it’s worth considering whether to sell and move the center to another location.”

His comments drew cheers from dozens of families of people with disabilities who packed the Capitol meeting room for the hearing.

The senators were debating the future of the state’s five developmental centers after an 18-month investigation by California Watch detailed chronic abuse and a breakdown in oversight. The centers house about 1,600 patients with cerebral palsy, mental retardation and severe autism.

The California Watch investigation found 36 cases of alleged rape and molestation at the centers, with one-third of the rapes occurring at the Sonoma Developmental Center, the largest board-and-care center in the state.

The Office of Protective Services, the internal police force assigned to protect residents of the state facilities, routinely mishandled cases by failing to collect evidence, waiting too long to interview witnesses or suspects, and not ordering rape kits in cases of alleged sexual assault, California Watch found.

The stories prompted a citation by the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division and caused the state to strip the Sonoma Developmental Center of its primary license to operate in December. The loss of state certification in Sonoma means California taxpayers will lose tens of millions of dollars in federal funding that is contingent on assurances the facility is properly managed.

Among those who testified at the budget hearing was Terri Delgadillo, director of the Department of Developmental Services, which oversees the five centers.

She told the crowded hearing room that her department made major changes in overseeing the Sonoma center after the abuses came to light, including replacing top officials in Sonoma. She said 46 employees have been disciplined as a result of complaints, the center has created a new electronic incident reporting system and staff members have been trained on sexual assault response. 

"We’re heading in the right direction and feeling positive, but there’s still a lot to be done," she said.

Nevertheless, she opposed the appointment of an inspector general, saying the department could not afford it within its proposed $4.9 billion annual budget.

“There is a lot of oversight today – state licensing, federal licensing, disability rights groups audits, professional licensing boards,” she said. “I do struggle with how we will pay for (an inspector general). The way we got to the problems at Sonoma today was unallocated reductions in our budget. I don’t know where you get the resources.”

Before the hearing, more than 100 protesters wearing painted T-shirts and signs emblazoned with the words “equality for all” gathered on the steps of the Capitol and called on the Legislature to shut down the centers.

“It is stunning and spine-chilling to know the state allows – and taxpayers fund – this outrageous abuse,” said Kiara Hedglin, an advocate with the group Seeking Equality through Education and Demonstration who has developmental disabilities. “To fix the problems, the state must shut down the developmental centers. They are decaying institutions with an alarming record of abuse that demonstrates an astounding, appalling and atrocious standard of care.” 

While disability rights advocates lauded the push for heightened oversight of the developmental centers, they said it was not enough. The only solution, they argued, was shutting the centers.

Kim Williams, who has cerebral palsy, said she was born in a state-run institution and lived at the Sonoma Developmental Center for five years. She told her story of her time at Sonoma on the steps of the state Capitol, calling Sonoma a “hellhole.”

“I felt like a prisoner, but I never committed any crime,” Williams said, communicating through a speaking device. “I knew I wanted freedom, and I knew I had to leave. If I had to go back, I’d take my own life."  

After the hearing, DeSaulnier was more direct in calling for an end to the state-run centers.

"Personally, I would do away with the developmental centers," he told California Watch. "They are a big investment based on a 1950s model. They're not working." 

He said the Sonoma Developmental Center should be shut down and relocated to a facility that was less costly and better able to provide care to patients. 

"When you have a campus like Sonoma that is a huge fixed asset for the state that is only half-used, it makes no sense financially," DeSaulnier said. "And when you factor in the other problems like abuse and neglect, it's just stupid to keep it open as is." 

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