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Savory Sonoma, by Stephanie Hiller - April 2015


Savory Sonoma, by Stephanie Hiller
April 2015

In the "Pinch": Sonoma Development Center

"Our country is not doing its best job for the mentally disabled and mentally ill,” said Helen Rowntree, at a forum March 14 regarding the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center. “Many of these people are on our streets and in our prisons."

Psychiatrist Christine Montrosa, writing in the New York Times, agrees. “We’ve failed the mentally ill and the mentally disabled,” she writes, and recommends a new type of asylum.

At the forum, elected officials and representatives of engaged local agencies assured some 200 citizens that the well-being of 400 residents, not cost, was their priority, then they listened to families speak about how much they relied on the SDC and feared that transfer would endanger the lives of their resident.

Nothing was said about the money.

It currently costs approximately $150 million a year to operate the facility, according to information relayed by Nancy Lungren, communications staffer at the Department of Developmental Services, which operates the remaining three centers. That’s about $375,000 per patient. According to Shawn Martin, Managing Principal Analyst in the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), 85 percent is spent on salaries and benefits for staff. 

No decision has been made to close the facility but earlier this month the LAO recommended closure. The state has been preparing to transfer residents to small community homes in accord with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but speakers at the forum, including former SDC Chief Psychiatrist Mark Levy Sutton, say that poorly funded and understaffed group homes are inadequate for these patients.

The ADA states that individuals capable of living in the community should not be isolated in institutions like the SDC. In 1999, the Supreme Court enshrined this view in the Olmstead decision on behalf of two disabled women who had not been moved into the community in accord with the ADA. The decision pertains specifically to those individuals who might benefit from such a move, stating that “institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings… severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals.”

But many SDC residents are not capable of living in the community; many cannot even express their needs verbally. They suffer from co-existing chronic conditions like autism, epilepsy, and asthma in addition to low mental function. Families testified that their disabilities are so severe they might die as a result of the move. Their stories are heartbreaking.

What to do? A coalition of nonprofits working with Supervisor Susan Gorin is working on a proposal to keep SDC open by transforming it and expanding its functions. They have allotted 18 months to the planning process. The Center uses only 200 of the 1600 acres that connect Sonoma Valley with the Marin Coast. This is a special type of wildlife corridor known as a “pinch-point,” as Sonoma Land Trust’s John McCaulle explains in the new blog, Transform SDC. Civilization presses upon the deer trails and bobcat haunts from both sides. The group will be holding its first public meeting on May 2.

Thus the fate of the developmentally disabled and the future of wildlife have become intertwined. And that seems very apt. So many of our illnesses including mental disorders are caused by ruthless consumption and contamination of the environment.

But transforming SDC into a viable facility is definitely a question of money – and lots of it. In our phone conversation, Martin told me that a report done in the late 90s concluded that bringing all the then-existing DCs up to code would cost “hundreds of millions to hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars.”

Of course our hearts are with the movement to transform. Along that pleasant, tree shaded stretch of road between glorious Glen Ellen and destination Sonoma, are the gorgeous Sonoma hillsides that would tempt any developer drooling for opportunities to provide relaxation and the untrammeled natural world to his well-heeled clients.

We’d rather see those public lands put to good use. An expanded center for treatment and care of this segment of our population would address several problems at once. Not only would it better serve the people it’s meant to serve, it could reduce homelessness, provide outpatient services, contribute to research, and protect open space in the bargain. It’s brilliant, and a lot of good people are working on it. Let’s make this vision come true.