Mike Kepka/San Francisco Chronicle Giant palm trees stand at the main gate of the Sonoma Developmental Center, which houses about 500 patients.
A former employee of the Sonoma Developmental Center has been tapped to head California’s largest full-time care facility for the severely disabled, at a time when the institution is struggling to reinvent itself in the wake of patient abuse scandals.
The Department of Developmental Services announced Wednesday that Karen Faria, who worked at the Sonoma Developmental Center from 1985 to 2005, will become the embattled facility's latest executive director starting April 1.
The appointment comes in the wake of a California Watch series that uncovered serious allegations of patient abuse at the Sonoma Developmental Center. The reported abuses included cases of rape and molestation as well as allegations that a state worker used a Taser to inflict burns on a dozen patients.
The California Watch investigation exposed these cases and focused on failures of an internal police force to get to the bottom of the abuses. One-third of the 36 alleged rapes occurred at the Sonoma board-and-care center – one of five such facilities in California that house about 1,600 patients with severe disabilities.
But the state Office of Protective Services, a unique internal police force set up exclusively to protect residents of these state centers, routinely mishandled cases – waiting too long to interview witnesses or suspects and failing to collect evidence. In the alleged sex assaults reported at these state facilities, the police force never ordered a “rape kit,” a standard law enforcement investigatory tool. After a state worker was accused of using a stun gun to inflict burns on a dozen severely autistic male patients, the police force waited at least nine days to interview the suspect, who was never charged with a crime.
The series sparked new polices, a complete retraining of the police force, leadership changes and a criminal investigation by the Sonoma County district attorney’s office into the stun gun abuses.
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The series also led to two new laws signed by Gov. Jerry Brown designed to bring greater protections to the severely disabled living in these state centers. A third bill, introduced last month, would mandate that rape kit examinations be conducted if a patient at any state-operated institution accuses an employee of sexual assault.
SB 651 written by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, and Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would require the exam be performed “at an appropriate facility off the grounds of the developmental center or state hospital."
In addition, the state revoked the Sonoma facility's primary license to operate, threatening a loss of millions of dollars in federal support.
Faria's appointment is the latest move to make changes at the center.
“I am thrilled that Ms. Faria is returning to lead Sonoma Developmental Center and continue implementation of necessary reforms at the facility,” said California Health and Human Services Secretary Diana S. Dooley.
But some are already expressing concern about the appointment. Former employees of the Sonoma center say that Faria was part of the administrative old guard that knew of patient abuse and tried to suppress investigations into wrongdoing at the center. One former doctor at the facility was particularly critical of the appointment.
"Her appointment is an amazing bit of duplicity,” said Dr. Van Peña, a physician at the Sonoma Developmental Center from 1990 to 2000. “She is totally party line, so I don’t know how she’s going to right the ship.”
Faria could not be reached for comment today.
Faria began at the Sonoma center as a recreation therapist in 1985 and rose through the ranks as the clients’ rights advocate, quality assurance program director and clinical director from 2000 to 2005.
Peña said Faria’s success at the center came from keeping her head down and not questioning authority, even when patient safety was on the line.
“She is not an independent thinker,” Peña said. “If someone above her told her to do this or that, she would do it. That’s why that place had such abysmal care – because those instructions didn’t help patients, they helped people keep their jobs.”
Peña is suing the Department of Developmental Services, alleging officials at the Sonoma center fired him for reporting suspicious injuries to outside regulators and to law enforcement. The state denies the claim and has fought the doctor's lawsuit for a decade. It is scheduled to go to trial in federal court later this year.
Nancy Lungren, a spokeswoman for the Department of Developmental Services, which oversees the state's five developmental centers, said Faria's background was carefully reviewed before the selection was made.
"These background checks indicated Ms. Faria would be a strong leader committed to client protection," Lungren said.
The Sonoma center is appealing the loss of its license with state public health officials. In January, the Department of Developmental Services agreed to forfeit more than $1 million a month in federal funding for failing to protect severely disabled patients from abuse at some of the center’s housing units. The federal funds cover as much as half of the treatment costs for patients who qualify for the federal program.
The state has taken what it calls “aggressive actions” to correct problems at Sonoma, including having the California Highway Patrol oversee the law enforcement, establishing an independent on-site monitor and enhancing staff training.
“With her extensive experience, Ms. Faria will be able to provide the strong leadership needed to improve services and ensure that residents are living in a healthy and safe environment,” said Terri Delgadillo, the department's director.
Faria assumes her new position April 1 with an annual salary of $108,564, according to the Department of Developmental Services.
But Peña doubted Faria could now protect patients.
“Unless she was locked in a closet with bricks all those years, the physicians and nurses would have seen incident reports of patient neglect and abuse,” said Peña. “She would have known about the incident reports.”