California set to close all institutions for the disabled

Published Mar. 25, 2016

California set to close all institutions for the disabled

By Susannah Frame, KING 5 News

In less than six years the state of California will join the ranks of other states in the nation that have closed all of their institutions for people with developmental disabilities. The closure plan, spearheaded by the leadership of Gov. Jerry Brown (D), involves transitioning roughly 800 residents out of the last three institutions in California into regular neighborhoods, supported by caregivers to meet their needs.

“The plan recognizes the need to reevaluate the role of (institutions) in light of the historical trend of individuals with developmental disabilities transitioning from institutional placements to community settings,” wrote the authors of a report published by California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office.

The trend emphasized by the state analysts is to stop the segregation of people with disabilities. Four decades of science has shown people with developmental and intellectual disabilities see their lives improve when they transition from institutions to integrated settings in the community. In addition, the U.S. Dept. of Justice considers unnecessary institutionalization a form of unlawful discrimination and that people, no matter their level of need, should be allowed the civil right of being included in their communities.

California’s decision leaves Washington as an outlier in the west. Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and New Mexico have closed all of their institutions. Idaho, Montana, Nevada and now California have plans to do the same. In contrast, as highlighted in the multi-part ongoing series by the KING 5 Investigators, “Last of the Institutions”, Washington continues to operate four institutions and has no plan in place to downsize, consolidate or close them. In fact in the latest legislative session, a proposal to expand the facility located in Selah appeared to be successful, but the bill ended up dying in the last days of the regular session.

“It breaks my heart. I think of Washington as a progressive leader in civil rights issues. This is sort of the last of the civil rights issues. I know it’s complicated, but most civil rights issues are,” said Stacy Gillett, executive director of the Arc of King County. The Arc is a non-profit dedicated to promoting the civil rights of people with developmental disabilities and has long been an advocate of closing institutions.

Roughly 800 people reside in Washington’s four institutions: Fircrest in Shoreline, the Rainier School in Buckley, the Yakima Valley School in Selah and Lakeland Village, outside of Spokane. While thousands of people have moved out of the facilities since the early 1970s, advocates for the RHC’s, including many legislators with RHC’s in their districts, fiercely fight to keep the option open for those left.  The institutions provide steady jobs with good benefits to approximately 2,300 state employees.

“It’s the economy and the jobs. You can’t say there’s something magical about the walls of the institutions. It’s not the specialty care. Every one of those employees could work in the community. It’s usually, unfortunately, a jobs issue (to continue to operate the RHC’s),” said Gillett.

Institutionalization is the most expensive way to care for people with developmental disabilities. On average it costs $223,000 per person, per year, to live in an RHC in Washington state. Similar services are offered in the community at a cost of $91,000 to the state. California's plan includes beefing up resources in the community, including creating community crisis homes across the state for people who need intense, temporary services. California expects to eventually save $250 million a year by closing their remaining facilities.

“I think it’s a pretty phenomenal step, particularly for a state that size. So if California can do it, Washington can do it. It’s just a question of if we have the will to do it,” said Gillett.