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Police Standards Proposed for Sonoma Developmental Center and Others Statewide

Legislation also calls for staff to report alleged sex assaults, physical abuse and sudden or mysterious patient deaths to outside law enforcement or the state.

Protective services at Sonoma Developmental Center and other state-run facilities for severely intellectually disabled people would be overseen by sworn police officers with extensive management experience, under a bill awaiting the governor's signature.

This comes in the wake of at least 12 years of reports of problems within the statewide developmental center system, some reported to be caused by these onsite personnel who are tasked with enforcing certain aspects of the law. The staff have been criticized for lack of investigations and sloppy or delayed work in various government and advocacy group reports. The state also has received criticism for not providing adequate training.

Under Senate Bill 1051, introduced by Sen. Carol Liu—chair of the Senate Committee on Human Services—the chief of Protective Services at each facility would be required to have experience "directing uniformed peace officer and investigation operations."

"Up until now, anyone has been able to do that job," Liu's legislative director, Robert Oakes, told Patch on Thursday. "One person was a former fire chief. They're two different jobs."

The proposed law would also require the state Department of Developmental Services, which oversees these facilities, to report these alleged incidents to the federal Human Services Agency, which oversees the state.

The governor has until Sept. 26 to sign or veto the bill, which contains an urgency clause. If signed, it will go into effect immediately.

A , a and other reports of abuse and neglect at the Sonoma center are the latest in a series of long term concerns that have launched the proposed standards.

There have been concerns raised over state facilities for developmentally disabled people since 2000, when issues raised by Sonoma Index-Tribune led to a report by the Attorney General's Office questioning whether the state Department of Developmental Services could adequately protect its institutionalized residents. That report, obtained by Patch from staff of the Senate Committee on Human Services, is attached to this article.

Sonoma Developmental Center, in the community of Eldridge near Sonoma, is the largest facility in the state that serves people with conditions such as cerebral palsy and severe autism. It was established in 1891.

California Watch, an investigative journalism group, recently disclosed a Department of Public Health report that documented "abuse" and "neglect" at the Sonoma center and called for immediate corrections. The report is attached to this article by Ryan Gabrielson. Patch requested a copy of the report from the Department of Developmental Services. However, staff responded that the 450-page document must first be completely redacted to comply with the law due to patient privacy issues.

The Senate Committee on Human Services held a hearing on developmental center concerns in March 2012. Liu then introduced the committee's bipartisan bill. It includes a requirement that the chief of Protective Services at each state facility be POST-trained and certified. POST (Police Officer Standards and Training) qualifications are not currently required as part of that job, Oakes said.

Another piece of legislation is due to get a Senate concurrence vote this week. SB 1522, authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), would mandate that any deaths, broken bones with unknown causes, assaults and injuries to genitalia get immediately reported by the developmental centers to outside law enforcement. The two bills overlap in many areas. The full text for each can be found on this legislative website.

The Department of Developmental Services on Aug. 22 responded to the Watchdog report on Sonoma Developmental Center with a news release stating that the executive director and clinical director at the center had been replaced.

The news release confirmed "patient protection incidents" documented in a July 19th report by the Department of Public Health. It further stated: "The employee involved in the lewd act (exposure) was terminated and later convicted. The employee involved in the taser incident was terminated for weapons possession. Several other employees have been terminated or disciplined. Investigations continue and appropriate actions will be taken where needed."

At the Sonama center, an interim executive director, Karen Clark, is now assigned, according to staff.

Patch requested a tour of the center, through DDS and Clark's assistant but has not yet received a date, although the center's website announces that tours can be scheduled.

Meanwhile, a parents' group is defending the center, saying the reported incidents are isolated situations.

Executive director of Parent Hospital Association, Kathleen Miller, made this video statement on the group's website. She said the majority of staff at the Sonoma Center are there "for the right reasons." She said staff were the ones to report abuse and that the Sonoma center constantly is being observed by the loved ones who visit clients there. She also said that staff are being overworked due to budget constraints.

in June noted that activity programs and staff were being cut from the center.

Oakes acknowledged financial concerns and said that in addressing the state budget, "We've tried to avoid harm to our most needy citizens, particularly the disabled."

Sonoma Developmental Center provides acute, nursing and intermediate care to people with severe developmental disabilities. 

We'd like to hear your opinions on these issues. Tell us in the comments.

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Julie Pendray (Editor) August 31, 2012 at 06:40 PM
SB 1522 won its concurrence vote last night, 34-0, Senator Leno's staff have told us this morning.
Diane Aguillon September 01, 2012 at 01:49 AM
Glad to hear that the legislation is going ahead. More needs to be done to make sure the most vulnerable of the population are cared for. What about the staffing at the center, how many clients to staff ratio?
Jerra Letrich Hardy September 01, 2012 at 04:43 AM
What kind of evidence will local law enforcement need to collect to enable the DA to prosecute? Sonoma residents are unable to report or describe injuries/abuse/incidents and those that may have some language likely would not be considered credible witnesses in a courtroom. Is the DDS increasing staff to client ratios or installing surveliance equipment? What is the likelihood this legislation will have any impact on detering perpetrators?? Maybe someone should ask local prosecutors.
Julie Pendray (Editor) September 02, 2012 at 10:08 AM
Excellent questions Jerra. Thank you. And thanks for reading Patch.
Julie Pendray (Editor) September 02, 2012 at 10:10 AM
Good question. When we get more of a response from the center, we'll be able to help answer these type of questions.
christy September 02, 2012 at 08:18 PM
As an employee of SDC, I had to respond to some of these questions.....First, law enforcement /DA need proof to prosecute, not gossip/rumors etc. Most of the folks that live @ SDC can communicate and do report/describe injuries/abuse/incidents that occur. Each and every report, whether it be from a client or staff is taken very serious and is dealt with immediately. Even if the allegation is not true, it is policy to treat it as if it was, until thoroughly proven otherwise. Every resident of SDC has a voice, the staff of SDC are dedicated to ensuring that their voices are heard. Installing surveillance equipment? Ever hear of HIPPA? Im just so frustrated....I am in no way dismissing the horrifying and tramatic incidents that have happened, but SDC dealt with those issues swiftly and within the law; Client protection from harm is first above anything else. Does the general public really think that staff who are accused of abuse just get to keep working? Gimme a break. The answer is no.

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