Op-Ed: Phase out Southbury Training School and similar institutions

Connecticut faces a budget crisis in Fiscal Year 2016, with a projected $2.8 billion shortfall before the legislature even begins its work on the biennial budget. But we face another crisis too: the crisis facing thousands of families with sons and daughters on the Department of Developmental Services waiting list for residential services with no chance of placement unless there is an emergency.

How did this happen? In large part, because Connecticut spends so much on its antiquated and inefficient public sector system that there is not enough money to go around for all of those in need.  This is unacceptable even in good times.  In the face of massive budget deficits it is intolerable; depriving our most vulnerable citizens of services while unnecessarily burdening taxpayers.

Op-ed submit bugThe costs of segregated state-operated institutions far exceed the costs of private, community based settings, such as group homes. The state pays over $350,000 per resident per year at Southbury Training School and over $442,000 per resident per year at the Regional Centers – -vs. around $130,000 for a private group home.

State-run group homes cost about $338,000 per person per year. Despite these prohibitive costs, Connecticut continues to maintain these six institutions where over 500 intellectually disabled individuals live: Southbury Training School houses 319 residents, and the five Regional Centers house a total of 186 individuals.

This is so even though 15 years ago, the United States Supreme Court, in Olmstead vs. L.C., ruled that segregated institutions violate the constitutional rights of disabled individuals to live in the community as fully participating members of society.  Connecticut keeps these institutions open even though extremely well-researched longitudinal studies have established that a move from segregation into the community greatly enhances the quality of life of our formerly institutionalized fellow citizens.

What are we saying as a society when we continue to segregate and isolate more than 500 of our citizens solely because of their disability?

Last legislative session, after hearing the heartbreaking personal stories of parents who lay awake at night worrying what is going to happen to their disabled adult children still living at home, the General Assembly allocated $4 million to DDS as a “down payment” toward addressing the waiting list. Ironically, the governor’s recent budget recessions cut $5 million from the DDS budget.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the time is NOW to address the waiting list crisis, because families and advocates have shown state leaders that there is a way to do so within the current DDS budget. Here’s how:

The Connecticut Council on Developmental Disabilities, joined by The Arc Connecticut, the Office of Protection and Advocacy and the University of Connecticut Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, have launched the 2020 Campaign.

We are calling on the governor and the state legislature to close all state institutions that house individuals with intellectual disabilities by 2020 and to transition all residents to appropriate homes in  integrated settings in the community. We have also called for all savings to be used to reduce the residential waiting list. If the state-run group homes are included –they cost more than double the cost of private group homes– the savings could help eliminate the waiting list.

The 2020 Campaign seeks to close state institutions because they isolate individuals solely because of their disability, and because they are budget busters, sapping hugely disproportionate resources from the system.   This is not a new idea.

In 2012, the General Assembly’s Program Review and Investigations Committee issued a comprehensive report that unequivocally made the same recommendation –a recommendation that the governor and General Assembly, to date, have ignored. Perhaps the current budget crisis will get this report the serious consideration it deserves.

To those who suggest that we who advocate closing institutions are doing so “at the expense” of those  who now are living in state-operated institutions, the opposite is true. Our campaign expressly calls for moving residents to appropriate homes in the community, and we would not accept or support the loss of any needed service for those residents.  To suggest otherwise is irresponsible.

The time has come to do the right thing and close the institutions and move individuals living there into the community. And doing the right thing will save money, money that the Legislature then MUST redirect to expand residential services for adults with intellectual disabilities who currently are waiting for services.

Shelagh McClure and Tom Fiorentino of West Hartford are the parents of an adult son with an intellectual disability who is on the Department of Developmental Services’ waiting list for residential services.  McClure is chair of the Connecticut Developmental Disabilities Council, the group that is leading the current campaign to close the institutions.  Fiorentino is an advocate for the intellectual disabled, working with Families for Families, a group that is closely affiliated with ArcCT.

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