SDC evacuees are home, mostly
High winds blew the Nuns Fire directly south through Glen Ellen and Sonoma Valley Regional Park, ultimately threatening client residences at the Sonoma Developmental Center, which led to evacuation of 241 residents and staff early Monday morning, Oct. 9. Residents were first taken to Sonoma and placed at Adele Harrison Middle School and the Sonoma Veteran’s Memorial Building but were forced to move two days later after another fire broke out near Norrbom Road. This time, residents were taken 53 miles away to the Dixon fairgrounds in Solano County, where staff and volunteers, with a lot of help from the National Guard, labored to provide as much comfort as possible for the fragile patients.
Two weeks later, on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 176 residents were returned to the SDC.
By all accounts, the staff and support people did a magnificent job. “They have done everything they could,” said Kathleen Miller, co-president of SDC’s Parent Hospital Association (PHA). “I can’t criticize the efforts of the Department of Developmental Services or staff for the efforts they’ve gone to keep our people safe, medicated, and cared for. They went all out. I was impressed.”
Miller, whose son, Danny, has severe autism and resides at SDC, has been an active advocate for patient rights for many years as president and now co-president of the PHA.
A staff member for 39 years who participated in parts of the evacuation did not want to be identified, but had high praise for the evacuation.
“I’m blown away at the level of commitment and dedication of my coworkers,” she said. “There were many, many people working extra hours, coming in on their days off, leaving their own families to make sure clients were OK. It was very stressful in Sonoma, but after three days, they moved us to the fairgrounds at Dixon. That was a whole other huge endeavor – a far move, getting them re-established – and building a nursing facility, with not just a cot, but round-the-clock medical care, feeding, laundry services, clothing for everybody. It was a huge challenge.
“The janitors, food service, housekeeping – everybody worked tirelessly to keep bathrooms clean, supply us with laundry. Think of moving a house for 200 people and all of their supplies. We moved them to Sonoma then loaded them again to go to Dixon, and now are bringing them all back here. I can’t say enough about how hard people have worked and how kind people have been.”
Praise was abundant for management, as well.
“Nancy Bargmann, director of the Department of Developmental Disabilities, is on site daily and the personal and political support of Governor Jerry Brown and Secretary Diana Dooley has been critical to the success of not one but two evacuations and the stabilization and care of our family members,” PHA co-president Karen Moen wrote in an Oct. 19 message to PHA members.
Transitioning clients from SDC to community homes
The SDC houses the most fragile developmentally disabled clients left in California’s shrinking institutional system. They require intensive care and can be the most difficult people to place into the residential settings overseen by California’s 21 Regional Centers (RC).
The 120-year-old institution is scheduled to be shuttered by the end of 2018 in the ongoing closure of all the state’s Developmental Centers for the developmentally disabled.
The fact that 65 residents did not return has led to concerns that the careful transitioning process set up by state legislators and concerned local groups may have been short-circuited during the evacuation. Several parents and conservators were contacted by different regional centers asking to move their charges into a community home during the emergency.
Bob Denton’s brother Scott, 54, has been in institutions since he was 11 and has lived at SDC since 1987. Bob refused a request to sign a medical waiver to allow accelerated placement. “The regional centers were trying to bypass that, misusing terms like ‘emergency.’ There was no emergency.”
Janice Pruett had a similar experience.
“The East Bay RC said they wanted to move my son from Dixon to this house,” Pruett said. “I objected. We had had no meetings, he has his medicines, with very delicate dosage to avoid seizures. It is not something they can just ship him off to. I thought that was totally out of line.” Her son is back at Sonoma today.
Bob Hamilton is executive director of the North Bay Regional Center. He is confident that all the residents will ultimately be returned or properly transferred to community settings. NBRC is responsible for 71 of the 241 remaining SDC clients, with East Bay and Golden Gate regional centers accounting for the rest.
“Some people were put in placements that will not be permanent placements,” Hamilton said. “They will still be scheduled for permanent placement as soon as a home is available.”
Hamilton said three of North Bay’s clients were permanently transferred during the evacuation, with one staying in a temporary home until the permanent home is certified. Two others had to be hospitalized, and one client was temporarily assigned to a special behavior unit before returning to the community at large.
“The only time people were moved were ones where the evacuation site wasn’t going to work,” Hamilton noted, observing that any change can be highly disturbing to many of these residents.
Officials at the Department of Developmental Services and the Sonoma Developmental Center did not respond to requests for information about the non-returned residents.