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Updated: Sunday, 25 Sep 2011, 12:05 PM EDT
Published : Sunday, 25 Sep 2011, 12:05 PM EDT
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Loved ones of profoundly developmentally disabled residents of the Southbury Training School say they fear the sprawling residential facility will be closed in coming years to help balance Connecticut's budget and satisfy those who believe the state's last institution of its kind should be shuttered.
State officials, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, have said there are no immediate plans to shut down Southbury. The aging parents and guardians, however, are worried that after they die, their relatives will be placed in less expensive, nonprofit programs such as community group homes, and won't get the same level of care.
Many of the families and guardians are elderly, said David Kassel, spokesman for The Southbury Training School Home and School Association. "The last thing they want is the kind of uncertainty the administration is placing them under as far as the future of their loved ones at STS (Southbury Training School)."
The association plans to make its members' concerns known at a legislative public hearing scheduled for Tuesday. The General Assembly's Program Review and Investigations Committee is studying residential and day services for the 15,488 DDS clients, including a comparison of the costs of state services and those available from private agencies.
Southbury, built in the 1930s, has long been at the center of a debate over the appropriate care of people with mental retardation. Beginning Nov. 1, trained teams will begin evaluating each resident — 425 as of Sept. 1 — to see if they can live successfully in the community, such as in a group home. That information will be given the residents, their parents and guardians so they can decide whether to leave. It is the crux of a settlement agreement ending a 16-year-old class-action lawsuit over the state's failure to adequately evaluate residents for community placement.
New admissions to Southbury were halted in 1986 following a federal court order. The Department of Justice sued the state in 1985, alleging poor conditions violated the residents' civil rights. By 1994, DOJ still considered Southbury to be a "very dangerous place" and said the residents were not getting necessary medical attention, staff were poorly trained, conditions were not therapeutic and physical therapy services were inadequate. A special court-appointed master oversaw the facility until 2006, when the judge ruled that Connecticut had improved conditions and care at the facility.
Dr. Philip Bondy, 93, whose son Stevie, 56, has lived in Southbury since the 1970s, said there's a belief among many state officials that the residents would be better off in the community. But given the changes in the wake of the court action, he said Southbury is not an ordinary institution. There's been a push to integrate the residents with the community. Stevie, he said, has outside jobs and goes to the movies, restaurants and the grocery store. He and other residents live in cottages and apartments on the campus.
"It's a strong belief (among state officials) there's something magic about changing their address and going out in the community," said Bondy, a retired physician who has taught at Yale Medical School. He called that way of thinking "imaginary."
Talk of closure comes as the Malloy administration looks at ways to downsize state government. According to the DDS website, more than 1,333 full-time, part-time and consulting staff are employed at the school.
Rep. T.R. Rowe, R-Trumbull, co-chairman of the Program and Review Committee, said Southbury is a small part of a larger legislative study of services for the developmentally disabled. While he said he doesn't foresee Southbury closing "before its usefulness is exhausted," he said it appears that Connecticut could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year by shifting more DDS clients into community nonprofit settings.
"There is more than anecdotal evidence that the nonprofits can deliver the services, the same services or even better services, frankly, at a considerably lower cost," Rowe said. "And they've been doing it for years now. But for a variety of reasons, the state hasn't made the decision to begin a real switch-over from the public to the nonprofit sector in providing the services."
The Southbury association of parents and guardians questions whether that will be true for Southbury residents. Last week, it released results of a Freedom of Information request it recently filed with DDS. It found that a 2002 study commissioned by a legislative committee determined closing Southbury would produce "no significant savings" and would stress "an already over-burdened system." A 2010 update determined that closing the facility "would not produce any short-term savings" and that "there are substantial cost implications associated with developing an infrastructure to accommodate a parallel service system in the community."
If there's a policy decision to close Southbury, the report said it would "take a number
of years to develop that infrastructure."
Malloy spokeswoman Colleen Flanagan said the governor's primary concern is for the Southbury residents and the staff, many of whom have worked a substantial part of their careers at the facility.
"He has said before and continues to believe that the Southbury Training School is closing, albeit over a sustained period of time," Flanagan said. "STS is not the kind of facility that can be closed overnight."
Kassel said none of the families believe that the state is going to wait until the population at Southbury, which has an average age of 62 — one of oldest residents is 91, according to DDS — eventually dies off. They believe Malloy wants to close the facility while he's still in office.
"The problem is, the families and the guardians strongly believe there is nothing out there that's going to be equal or better. They will promise that there is, but that's all they are, are promises," he said, adding how Southbury must abide by more stringent standards than community programming.
Dr. Bondy said the group has suggested the state retain the current Southbury program, but also use some of the 1,600-acre campus to create a retirement facility for aging people with mental retardation.
DDS Commissioner Terrence W. Macy, in a written statement to The Associated Press, said he respects the people who call Southbury home and the staff. But he also supports the settlement agreement and will allow the residents and their families and guardians to make informed choices about what is the most appropriate setting for them.
"The chance for individuals and their families to find out what opportunities are available for them in the community is, for me, a critical first step in determining what is the best 'next step' for each person," Macy said. "My plan is for any transition from Southbury to occur in a thoughtful and purposeful way."