Community Voices

Wednesday, Jun 26 2013 11:02 PM

SHANNON GROVE: Let's better serve our developmentally disabled

While I have certainly made known my opinion about how badly off-target government expenditures and programs are, my eyes were really opened this year while working on the state budget and specifically, programs serving our most vulnerable population -- Californians with developmental disabilities. To me, this issue serves as a representative microcosm of just how wrong and dangerous government "solutions" can be.

The good news here is that people with developmental disabilities -- autism, intellectual disability, epilepsy, cerebral palsy and others -- enjoy bipartisan empathy. However, I have learned that our visions for supporting this population are radically different, with the Democrats' and Gov. Jerry Brown's plan resulting in millions of wasted taxpayer dollars and the placing of this population in serious harm's way.

To start, under the state's Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act, people with developmental disabilities are entitled to support to enable them to achieve lives as full and independent as possible. This law originated under Brown's first tenure as governor, during a time when attitudes about institutionalizing this population were changing. Today's Lanterman Act consists of a substantial nonprofit network of agencies serving 265,000 persons with developmental disabilities throughout the state.

Surprisingly, four behemoth, state-operated developmental centers are still open, including one built in the 1800s. These institutions only serve about 1,500 people, but the cost to taxpayers is over $500 million, or $420,000 per person annually. This is up from $253,000 per person just seven years ago -- a 66 percent per person increase.

The 1,500 individuals remaining in the developmental centers are no different than the 265,000 living and served in their own communities (with the exception of one smaller facility that houses developmentally disabled inmates who would not be eligible for release even if the state were to close the developmental centers.) But the Democrat-controlled Legislature has asked the nonprofits in our local communities to serve the same population of people for much lower rates.

What's the major difference? The state-run facilities are run solely by state employees -- 5,200 of them, or roughly 3.25 staff members for each client.

And last year, journalist Ryan Gabrielson uncovered an even worse secret. Gabrielson and the Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch documented abuse allegations ranging from neglect to more than 30 cases of sexual assault, including rape, within the developmental centers. The accountings even include a caregiver suspected of using a Taser to inflict burns on a dozen patients, and the paralysis and ultimate death of a patient who sustained a broken neck at one of these state-run facilities. These incidents demonstrate that the facilities are incapable of policing themselves, despite having their own state employee police force.

It is still not clear from what I have learned in hearings at the capitol whether firings, arrests or prosecutions have occurred as a result of these cases. In hearings at the Capitol, I have asked but am still not aware of a single firing, arrest or prosecution from these cases. I can't imagine the horror of being victimized, unable to communicate it, and then forced to live in the same environment where your perpetrator works. It's enough to break your heart.

Advocates for community-based programs have acknowledged that abuses can also occur in their programs, but reports of such incidents often result in firings and program closures, as well as action taken by law enforcement and district attorneys.

As a further insult, abuses at the Sonoma Developmental Center resulted in the loss of federal certification of four units, meaning the programs are so bad that the federal government has pulled funding.

Rather than looking to close these mismanaged programs, Democrats voted to backfill the lost $23 million with state taxpayer dollars. Perhaps to quiet the growing media and public interest in the costs and abuses associated with these institutions, this year's budget process resulted in the appointment of a "task force" to address this issue. Numerous reports of abuse and neglect and a 66 percent cost increase in seven years, and our first course of action is to convene a task force.

Clearly, business as usual just isn't good enough.

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove of Bakersfield represents the 34th District. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.

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