(Cross-posted from the COFAR blog)
A front-page article that ran Thanksgiving Day in The Boston Globe depicts with great sensitivity the lives of four men who were moved out of what was then the Fernald School 40 years ago and have lived ever since in the community.
The problem is that the piece, by Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham, implies that the Fernald Developmental Center of today remains the same over-crowded, poorly run institution that it certainly was for these men when they lived there from the 1950s through the 1970s. At the very least, the story neglects to mention the dramatic improvements that were made in the conditions at Fernald and elsewhere after the federal court assumed oversight in the 1970s of care delivered in Massachusetts to persons with intellectual disabilities.
And the story mistakenly implies that only community-based care is appropriate for the residents of Fernald and other state developmental centers today.
From the all-caps headline (“CELEBRATING THE GIFT OF BEING FREE”) onward, the article paints Fernald unrelentingly as a dark and isolated prison. While that was true up through the 1970s, the untold story is that Fernald and the five other remaining developmental centers in Massachusetts today are state-of-the-art facilities that are highly integrated with their surrounding communities and serve a population that needs their high level of services.
Abraham, however, doesn’t seem to want to discuss that part of the story. At first, it wasn’t entirely clear to me why she portrayed Fernald in such a uniformly negative light throughout the story. Not only is there no mention in the story of the improvements at Fernald since the 1970s, but there’s not even any mention of the fact that Fernald and three other developmental centers in Massachusetts have been targeted for closure by the Patrick administration. Or that guardians of 14 remaining Fernald residents oppose the closure and have kept the facility open for almost a year and a half beyond its scheduled closing date after having filed administrative appeals of the transfers of their wards from the center.
Why not mention all of those things that have been going on at Fernald currently and in recent years and place the story of the facility in a modern day context? It would have been a more interesting story, I think, had Abraham noted the contrast between the four men who are thankful today that they were able to leave Fernald, and the 14 guardians who today believe Fernald is the best place available for their loved ones.
It was only as I was nearing the end of Abraham’s piece that I came across a paragaph that made clear to me what appears to be her agenda. She stated:
The world has caught up with (the four men who left Fernald and a former worker who arranged for their move in 1971 to a group home outside of Fernald.) The goal now is to keep people with disabilities in the community, to help them realize their potential and enrich their surroundings.
Yes, it was now clear that this article was yet another in a long line of journalistic paeans to “community-based” care for people with intellectual disabilities. State-operated institutional care — bad. Community-based care — good. That’s the over-simplified storyline onto which too many journalists seem to feel the need to grasp, while ignoring the subtleties of recent history and even federal law.
Community-based care is the goal for many, but not for everybody. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Olmstead v. L.C., recognized that for some people with the most severe and profound levels of intellectual disability, institutions such as Fernald may well provide the most appropriate care.
Moreover, the community system today does not live up to the utopian ideal that Abraham’s piece sets for it. I’m sure that three of the former Fernald residents in Abraham’s story do live now in a “sweet bungalow” in Hyde Park, and that they do have a “good life,” in which they go to day programs where there is tai chi, singalongs and crafts. I have no doubt that Abraham was struck in spending time with these men by “how much of their potential was squandered” at Fernald 40 or more years ago and by “the joy of the lives they’ve salvaged” in the community.
But while there are many success stories in the community system, that largely privatized system is beset today with widely acknowledged problems of high turnover and poor training of direct-care staff, and abuse and neglect. At the same time, state contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars held by vendors to run community-based group homes are poorly overseen by the state, resulting in the potential for widespread waste, fraud, and abuse in their business practices. The media in this state have not been covering those issues, but the media in New York State have been. (See this and this.)
We think it is a tragedy that the Patrick administration apparently views care for the intellectually disabled in this same simplistic light of institution-bad and community-good, and is shutting the four developmental centers in budget-cutting moves. We are waiting for the day when the media take a more nuanced view of this issue, and at least recognize that there is another side to the story.
We strongly urge Abraham and other journalists to visit the Fernald, Glavin, Monson, and Templeton Centers, all of which are steadily being emptied of their staff and residents, before it’s too late. They will see for themselves the wonderful level of care that takes place in those centers, and will note that there are no young, high-functioning residents like Albert, Curtis, Richard, and Joe, left in them today.