Voices Raised in Support for SDC Staff, Services and Facility at Forum

Standing-room only crowd at Ramekins downplays reportage of abuse, looks for way to continue historic development center

The volatile issue of the Sonoma Developmental Center, the long-standing facility for the care and support of the developmentally disabled, took another turn Wednesday night in a forum at Ramekins Culinary School, sponsored by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), founder of the state-wide California Watch.

A recent study by CIR reporter Ryan Gabrielson called attention to numerous reports of abuse including sexual abuse and the Tasering of patients, and the lack of investigative response by the Office of Protective Services, the state police force charged with investigating crimes at developmental centers. The CIR study "Broken Shield" is found on the web at californiawatch.org/broken-shield. At the forum, Gabrielson introduced a brief video from CIR about the discovery of wide-spread abuse and cover-up at similar California institutions.

Yet the overwhelming public comment, and much of the discussion from the five-person panel that fronted the evening's agenda, focused instead on the more systemic issues facing the 1600-acre Sonoma Developmental Center in Eldridge, including budget cuts, a management-heavy administration and the apparent inevitability of the center's closure.

The panel, moderated by CIR executive chairman Phil Bronstein (former executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle), included Gabrielson as well as Jim Shorter, executive director of the Golden Gate Regional Center; Kathleen Miller, "just a mom" of an SDC resident, and head of the local Parent Hospital Association; and Coby Pizzotti, a legislative and political liaison for the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association (SCLEA).

"I represent the officers you were excoriating," said Pizzotti to Gabrielson in his opening remarks, referring to the Office of Protective Services. While in his later remarks Pizzotti made it clear he would prefer to see SDC and similar centers remain open if not revitalized, he set a grim tone for the evening with is statement, "You see what the end is. The Center is going to close. All the centers are going to close. The die is cast."

Pizzotti blamed not only the harsh conditions of state regulations that prevent further admission to such development centers, but budget cuts and reassignments that reduced staffing at a higher rate than the "clients" at the centers. As such, by attrition, the days are numbered for developmental centers, a sentiment echoed by others on the panel.

But the direction changed when Miller made it clear that the parents of the clients are not advocating for closure, but instead are supportive of the center and the services it provides.

Earlier this year, in light of the abuses reported by California Watch and others, a settlement was reached between the SDC and the state Department of Developmental Services (DDS) that decertified four living units, of the 14 on the campus and 10 that are occupied, to avoid the delicensing of the entire facility. Decertification does not prevent lodging or care, but removes federal funding, creating a gap that is usually made up by the state so the units can continue operating. Delicensing could close the facility.

For the most part, the issues of decertification and abuse were largely left behind, and the bulk of the evening was turned over to discussion of how to keep the facility functional, how to further ingratiate it to the local communities, and how to possibly "control" its closing to minimize disruption.

"It's not whether it's closing, it's when it's closing and how it's closing," said Jim Shorter. He suggested that parents and the community work for a reasonable closure plan now—"using whatever leverage you have."

Pizzotti was more forthright. "I'm going down kicking and screaming but I absolutely will not let this place close, over my dead body," he said to considerable applause.

At one point, panel moderator Bronstein asked for a show of hands of the people who worked at SDC, and fully a quarter of the 300 or so in attendance raised their hands. The current staff is over 1,000, aside from management, according to SEIU representative Daniel Solnit, roughly double the number of current patients.

"Proposition 30 is going to help," said Pizzotti, "but the economy is going to have to get better. But what we really need is to get legislators to care."

With the parents' organization and substantial staff represented, concerns about patient abuse and the failure of proper reportage and enforcement at times seemed overshadowed by the faint hope that SDC could be salvaged, if not saved outright. One audience member bristled at mention of the reported Tasering, insisting it had never been proved, only alleged.

During the audience question period, Tom Whitworth of Sonoma refuted Gabrielson's reportage of abuse, pointing out that abuse was widespread in our society anyway, regardless of the mental condition of the abused. But the response of California Watch restated their conviction that residents in hospitals such as SDC are the most vulnerable in our society, and as such the state is required by law to protect them, according to the Lanterman Act.

Another hot-button issue was raised over the issue of what would happen to the historic facility south of Glen Ellen if it were to close. Said one SDC neighbor, "We're terrified that the developers are going to get their hands on it."

The potential closure of the center also raised the specter of economic impact: with over 1,200 employees, its closing would double unemployment in Sonoma Valley, said Solnit. He pointed out the unique skillset of the employees, saying "For every bad apple there are 100 people who have dedicated their lives to helping these folks."

Ironically, although the forum was organized by the Center for Investigative Research - the largest non-profit reporting agency in the country - both its reportage and that of forum co-sponsor the Sonoma Index-Tribute were called into question by the audience for their supposed indifference to "the good news" and focus on the bad.

"No offense, Ryan," said Miller to Gabrielson, her panel colleague, "but you've given the people who want to close Sonoma a huge microphone."

Both IT editor and publisher David Bolling and CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal refuted the complaints, and CIR moderator Joaquin Alvarado delivered a brief lecture on the "fourth estate" and its role in public discourse. "People have always misused journalism," he said.

"The most important thing that's happened tonight is that you're all here," said Rosenthal.

The two-hour forum was organized and managed by California Watch, which took public comments and video recorded the proceedings.

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