Hearing finds state development centers still rife with abuse

April 15, 2013

By Katy Grimes

The Senate Health and Human Services Subcommittee No. 3 conducted a hearing last week and discussed the current status of the the Department of Developmental Services and its controversial developmental centers.

At the hearing, the Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended the Legislature create an independent Office of Inspector General to strengthen the oversight of the Sonoma Development Center. And the LAO recommended the cost of $500,000 to $1 million to do this come out of the DDS budget.

A report last year found the Sonoma Developmental Center was rife with licensing violations, including sexual assault, stun gun injuries, overall abusive treatment of the developmentally disabled residents, failure to provide appropriate medical treatment, and an unsafe environment. “Individual freedoms have been denied or restricted without justification,” the report read.

Past hearings have covered the horrific nature of abuses on some residents living in the developmental centers, but changes are so slow in coming, and ongoing allegations of abuse continue.

Following the discovery, the Legislature held hearings last year and demanded corrective action. But little has actually changed, according to lengthy testimony at an October hearing.

At a hearing in November, DDS Director Terri Delgadillo said “corrective action is ongoing.” She added that the agency is paying consultants to advise on corrective actions.

But lobbyists for the developmentally disabled told me that 10 years ago the agency did the same thing and hired consultants, but never implemented the recommended corrective actions.

What are the issues?

One important issue is that many developmentally disabled people living in state institutions are older and do not have family members who oversee the quality of their care or advocate for them.  When the state closed several developmental centers decades ago, some older parents were against the closings.

Most of these parents and their disabled children were older and were afraid of the unknown, and how the emerging community “group homes” located in residential neighborhoods would work for them. Their children were born at a different time, and had not been allowed to attend regular school, as now is the common practice.

“People were cruel to them and life was difficult,” one mother recently told me.

Shielded from the cruel public, ostensibly living with “well-trained and caring  staff,” the developmental centers seemed like the best option at the time. Unfortunately, most of the institutions have historically lacked oversight.

The Sonoma Developmental Center, located in the town of Glen Ellen, has more than 500 residents with developmental disabilities. Recently, four of the center’s 10 Intermediate Care Facility units lost their federal certification based on the multiple incidences of abuse, neglect and poor caregiving.

What is the DDS?


Despite cases of abuse, sexual assault, injuries and even death, California’s state run institutions for the developmentally disabled are continually defended by DDS officials.

The DDS is a massive state agency which claims to have historically inadequate budgets. But many experts in the state say the agency could cut $500 million from its annual budget just by getting rid of the antiquated institutions that many developmentally disabled have lived in for decades.

The DDS employs 6,000 people and maintains a budget of $4.7 billion, of which $550 million funds five state-run residential care developmental centers.

Institutions not needed

According to experts who care for the developmentally disabled, the institutions are not needed because there are plenty of licensed care homes in the communities that take care of a smaller number of people more efficiently.  These homes are usually located near the residents’ families, allowing family members to visit on a regular basis. Residents of these facilities attend local day programs, sporting and entertainment events, and have easy access to community health care.

Living in the smaller licensed care homes, they are seen by more people in the community so there is less chance that issues of abuse will go unnoticed.

Many of the experts say the DDS is unwilling to give up the developmental centers because it doesn’t want to lose such a large part of the agency budget. This may be a serious enough issue. The Legislature will need to step in and force the closures. The loss of federal certification and funds should be an indicator enough that this antiquated system needs a long-overdue overhaul.

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