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Sonoma Developmental Center is 'Cadillac of Care,' Parents' Representative Says

Kathleen Miller says families of Sonoma's clients want to keep their loved ones there in spite of reports of assaults.

In the wake of reports of abuse and inadequate investigation at Sonoma Developmental Center and other state-run homes for the developmentally disabled, the head of a parents' advocacy group is giving the public another perspective.

Kathleen Miller is president of Parent Hospital Association, a group that represents people who have loved ones at the Sonoma center, in the community of Eldridge. The center is the largest of four such residential care complexes in California. In the past few years, it has come under fire for reports of and Tasering.

Recently, the state Department of Developmental Services, which operates the centers, volunteered to withdraw four units at the Sonoma location from federal certification for Medicaid and Medicare, acknowledging problems there.

The state threatened to shut the facility down, after Sonoma lost its primary license.

California Watch, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting, has published a series of articles on the state-run facilities and recently presented a public forum in Sonoma on the issues. Miller was one of the people on the panel. She also spoke at a Sonoma City Council meeting recently, to educate the public about the issues from a parent's perspective.

According to Miller, Sonoma Developmental Center is the "Cadillac of care" for its clients. She speaks from the experience of four decades of seeing her son Dan going in and out of developmental centers and privately run community homes. She told Patch that the public needs to understand that the type of abuse reported at the Sonoma facility also happens in community homes. Clients can be evicted from the homes for their behavior, she said. If the developmental centers close, there will be no other place for evicted clients to go.

"Society is not always kind to the developmentally disabled," she said.

Miller does not discount the reports of abuse at the Sonoma center.

But she said, "These are complex issues. We need to right this ship and correct the problems before we consider closing the developmental center. We families are told that the only reason we don't want Sonoma to close is because we don't know what's out there in the way of community homes. But it's the exact opposite: we don't want Sonoma to close because we do know what's out there."

Miller said the medical care at the Sonoma center is "second to none." She said staff are professional and the culture is "enchanting," with its many enrichment activities.

Her son Dan has lived at Sonoma Developmental Center for several years. He is now 45.

Miller learned Dan was autistic by the time he was 4. In puberty, he was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. He also has obsessive-compulsive behavior. She raised Dan at home until he went into puberty, when his behavior became unmanageable and she needed to work outside the home, as a divorced parent. Over the years, Dan has lived in three developmental centers and two privately operated community homes.

Talking about the trauma of her son's experience in one of the community homes still makes Miller tearful.

"I am just now able to talk about it without crying," she told Patch on Monday at her home in Sonoma County.

In her living room, there's a framed photo of her with Dan, a tall, good-looking man, with wavy hair.

"He's a handsome guy," Miller said, "though these days it's more apparent that he has mental illness."

In his youth, he loved to climb a tree in Miller's back yard. Now he is afraid of physical activities.

"He talks to himself and I have to work sometimes to bring him out of that—to engage him," she said. "I miss his younger self."

"He first became mentally ill in his community home," she said.

Miller had hoped he would only be there temporarily and that she could take him back to live at home.

"They kicked him out," she said. "The regional center gave him back to my care. He was very ill and I recall the only way I could manage him was to take him on long, long walks. I took a leave from work. One night I got a relief babysitter so my daughter and I could get a break. She ended up calling the police—she could not handle him. He was placed in Agnews (Developmental Center). We had him moved to Camarillo (Developmental Center) so we could visit him. When Camarillo closed, we tried the community again."

What followed was devastating for both Miller and her son, she told Patch. Dan's behavior deteriorated, so the doctor took him off his medications cold turkey.

"Dan ended up in diapers, not speaking," she said. "They put him on Thorazine (an anti-psychotic drug). At one point, the staff and I couldn't wake him up."

Miller said the son she placed in that home is no longer the son she knows today.

"He never really recovered," she said.

"He eventually went to Fairview (Developmental Center) but we had him moved up here when we moved here," she said.

Miller visits Dan at least once a week at Sonoma Developmental Center. She believes he is in the right place, where he can get the best care. She said other families feel the same way about their loved ones and they don't want the center to close because they know the community homes are no better. She said she has found that staff in some homes are not adequately trained.

"We don't know how the cases of abuse in those homes are being reported," she said, in reference to the series of stories on the developmental centers. She said she knows of serious cases in community homes that have received very little or no news coverage, compared to the recent spotlight on the centers.

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TELL US: If you are a family member of a client at Sonoma, perhaps you'd like to also offer your opinions in our comments section below.

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Dee Baucher February 07, 2013 at 08:27 PM
The problem is that the Developmental Center is an obscenely expensive way to care for individuals like Ms. Miller's son. The problem is also that it is unfair for individuals like her son to be granted "the Cadillac of care", while other equally deserving neuro-cognitively disabled people (with traumatic brain injuries, or severe mental illnesses, or dementias, or other brain disorders ) are receiving the equivalent of "third-world nation" care, instead of the comprehensive care that should be available for all. Historically, those disabilities categorized as "developmental" somehow were able to (politically) garner greater economic support for institutionalized care. This needs to change. Brain disorders should all be afforded much better access to more modern and comprehensive interventions and support. If the Developmental Center were converted into a more inclusive research and care facility for all brain disorders - instead of just a warehouse for those with a sub-set of brain dysfunctions - then the opportunity for much better medical and scientific collaboration would be created. The myriad of obsolete psychiatric and psychological labels that have been tagged onto individuals with various brain disorders has been exposed as counter-productive, and in conflict with our increasingly greater understanding of the precise physiology and anatomy of the brain. All patients with brain disorders need to be individualized in terms of specific strengths and weaknesses.
Michael Hawkins February 07, 2013 at 08:55 PM
My brother was a longtime resident of SDC and the level of care, activities and opportunities available there simply cannot be duplicated in any community setting. I am currently a conservator for another current SDC resident and will continue to advocate for his placement at SDC. Mortality and follow-up studies for former residents of Agnews are ambiguous and incomplete but my suspicion is the risks associated with community placement far outweigh the perceived benefits of a "less restrictive environment" and many developmentally disabled citizens end up in county jails and state prisons unnecessarily.
Dee Baucher February 07, 2013 at 09:01 PM
Stem-cell research, neuro-pharmacology, neuro-anatomy and ongoing elucidation of the precise genetic components of brain structure and function - will finally allow us to make real inroads in care for those with brain disorders. The fragmentation of patients into various categories of diseases - many of which have been found to be inaccurate, over time - has not served those with brain disorders well. If SDC was converted into a facility for research and care for a broad-spectrum of brain disorders, and was made into a transparent and accountable institution (and not completely insulated from academic and public scrutiny) than the opportunity for real accomplishments in our medical knowledge as well as our specific care of individuals would be greatly enhanced. I believe it is time for the State of California, as well as the nation, to invest wisely and to convert places like SDC into more inclusive centers of brain research and study, as well as comprehensive intervention and care. Before we close down institutions, we need to start thinking "outside the box". SDC happens to be located proximal to numerous medical/academic research institutions (UCSF, UC Davis, Stanford, etc.) and the stem cell research center in SF. Collaboration for a world-class brain study center in this location could be realized.
Michael Hawkins February 07, 2013 at 09:03 PM
A major reason for the "obscene" per-client cost is the deflection policy implemented by DDS. To care for a declining population with no new admissions is inherently more costly and that fact is being used to justify the elimination of these facilities. I agree that the DC's can, and should, be better utilized to serve not only the residents but a much more inclusive and broader range of clients. There have been several such proposals in the past, but DDS is hell-bent on closure. Once this occurs, a valuable resource for our society's most vulnerable will be gone forever and the highly specialized care they receive from dedicated, caring professionals will likewise be lost.
Deb Wong August 17, 2013 at 08:36 PM
My brother Mark, who is severely autistic(and violent) has been very well cared for at Sonoma D.C. If the facility is shut down, Mark will have nowhere else to go, especially with the specialized treatment that he has received at Sonoma D.C. for decades. When Mark lived at Napa State, unbeknownst to his family, he was released during Governor Reagan's purging of state facilities, to save money. During that time, Mark was homeless, and wound up hitting a 3-year-old girl over the head with a two-by-four. The parents of the child threatened to sue Reagan and the State of California if mark were not returned to Napa State Hospital. Years later, Mark went to live at Sonoma D.C., and has had the best care of his life since then. The doctors, social workers, and physical therapist all care for my brother.
Ralph Hutchinson October 14, 2013 at 04:07 PM
Many including myself believe there is an ulterior motive for Darius Anderson to close SDC and develop it commercially into a winery, hotel and perhaps partner with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria for a sister casino to the $800 million Rohnert Park Graton Hotel & Casino.

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