A Fence Too Far

Fate of hundreds in limbo as state moves to close Sonoma Developmental Center

If the state gets its way, Kathleen Miller’s disabled adult son and some 400 other patients will be forced to leave the care of Glen Ellen’s Sonoma Development Center for a destination unknown.

“[State officials] say they want to collaborate with us, but this is a fast-track for closure,” Miller says. “They want to close it very quickly, and almost dangerously.”

Miller is the head of the Parent Hospital Association at the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), which the state has scheduled to close in 2018. Last week she was one of several local advocates for the center who teed off on the proposed closure plan offered by the state Department of Developmental Services.

State Sens. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and Bill Dodd, D-Napa, share her concerns and took issue with a plan that they said doesn’t address the fate of the developmentally and behaviorally disabled people now living at the facility.

“We are incredibly disappointed with the draft plan that was put forward last week,” the lawmakers asserted in a Sept. 21 press release. “The report is inadequate and lacks the specific details that we as a community expected, and quite frankly, were led to believe would be delivered.”

The question hanging in the air is what happens if efforts at community placement of residents fail by the time the facility closes?

Closing the SDC means closing a facility of last resort for some residents who might otherwise find themselves getting their mental-health services in locked-down hospital psychiatric wards or, worse, in jail.

“We already know that the Sonoma Developmental Center is home to the state’s most medically fragile residents,” the lawmakers wrote, “and we know that, in past transitions, some residents have struggled to succeed in community placement. It is unacceptable that this draft plan lacks any details about contingency planning for these residents, and others who may not thrive in the community. This report essentially takes a wait and see position on care: Wait and see if residents struggle or fail in the community, and then act to make changes.”

The state has slated the facility for closure as a cost-cutting move. It’s been in operation at the Sonoma Valley location since 1891. The state push is part of a years-long effort to get out of the pricey mental-health-services business and privatize care in smaller, group-home settings.

But the SDC is a unique asset—”the largest and most significant unprotected land in the Sonoma Valley,” says the county website—and part of the treatment for residents has historically been open access to the natural wonders around it.

Miller says the lawmakers are spot-on in their critique of the closure plan, which, she says amounts to “close it first and then let’s see what happens.”

Miller has welcomed efforts from county officials and other agencies to create an alternative to the closure, an effort that is ongoing. Susan Gorin, president of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, is a supporter of the parents’ coalition.

Patient advocates have called on the state to continue using the SDC. McGuire and Dodd want to use the space for specialty services and propose transitioning the facility to a health center for those with severe behavioral issues.

The state has said that while it won’t put the property into the “surplus” category—which might have meant its eventual sale to commercial interests, such as a vineyard operator—it has not shown interest in any continued use that provides services to those living there now.

Local advocates for SDC have called for a facility that provides, for example, specialized dental services for the developmentally disabled, as well as housing for the behaviorally challenged. The closure plan from Developmental Services generally rebuffs those plans while simultaneously claiming that the first priority of the state is to find adequate housing for the residents.

Many have lived there for decades, including Miller’s son. Those patients may find a tough transition road ahead.

“It feels like we have this strong local voice with this strong local vision that has been ignored by Sacramento,” Miller says.

A key issue for Miller is that the SDC is a facility of last resort for residents like her son, who is in his late 40s and has a dual diagnosis of mental illness and autism. Over the years, Miller has tried to find housing for him in smaller group homes, but he always wound up back at SDC, where he lives now.

Miller is also concerned about a state effort to replace long-term, state-run centers such as the SDC with smaller facilities that would be built to “delayed egress/secure perimeter” standards. Those are facilities surrounded by a fence where residents can’t go outside unless they are let out.

The concern is that these would wind up being a “one size fits all” solution for developmentally challenged adults.

The state of California is mandated to provide safe housing for the developmentally disabled with a minimum of restrictions on their mobility, but Miller fears that the state may over-rely on these homes as a catch-all for whoever comes out of the SDC when it closes in 2018.

State disability advocates have noted that these “delayed egress/secure perimeter” buildings are a good deal for people who would otherwise be forced into more secure facilities, such as jail. As such, the state launched a pilot program in 2014 to develop six of the facilities around the state, and loosened restrictions on existing group homes of less than 15 beds to allow for delayed egress/secure perimeter upgrades. But what about residents at SDC who are used to living in a less secure facility, have lived there for practically their whole lives and now face the prospect of being locked behind a fence?

John McCaull, land acquisition property manager at the Sonoma Land Trust, echoes Miller’s concerns. McCaull’s organization is keenly interested in the fate of the SDC grounds, which provide critical habitat and act as a wildlife corridor straddling Sonoma Regional Parks land and Jack London State Park.

The grounds originally comprised some 1,600 acres, but about 15 years ago, 600 acres were cleaved into the adjacent Jack London State Park. Of the roughly 1,000 remaining acres, about 200 are dedicated to the SDC campus itself, which contains multiple buildings, some in better shape than others; the remaining land is undeveloped and open to the public. The main building is structurally unsound and not in use.

McCaull shares Miller’s concern about the advent of secured off-site facilities and what it might mean for residents. He notes that even as the SDC campus has been downsized, there remains “a huge environmental asset that the state has managed quite well.” His organization was relieved at the state pledge to keep the land out of the surplus pile.

“Of course we care about the land, but the wellbeing of the 400 people and the thousands of people that have lived there over the years is connected to the fact that they can get around, they can move freely,” McCaull says. “It’s an open setting and being in nature has helped a lot of the people there.”

Sonoma County Library