The history of what is now known as the Fernald Developmental Center hasn’t been free of some serious blemishes or controversy. But from 1889 to the present time, Fernald’s 200-acre campus in Waltham has been the site of a facility providing residential care for persons with intellectual disabilities.
That’s all about to change permanently.
Under legislation negotiated among representatives of the Patrick administration, the City of Waltham, and local legislators, the state will sell the campus to the city for $3.7 million, which comes to 18,500 per acre — a price that has been described as “dirt cheap.” It appears there is also a requirement that the city pay the state up to half the proceeds from the re-sale of any of that land to developers.
There is just one group of people that seems to have been left out of the plans and negotiations. That group is the developmentally disabled — the very persons who had been living at Fernald all along. Other than keeping the therapeutic swimming pool open at Fernald and maintaining a 29-bed nursing home on the campus, there appear to be no plans to continue to provide care or services at the Fernald site for persons with disabilities who live in the surrounding community.
This is an unfortunate oversight, not only for the residents who have been forced to leave Fernald, but for developmentally disabled people in the community. As I’ll explain, the lack of a plan for integrated, community-based care at the Fernald site has been, and will continue to be, both a missed opportunity to help those waiting for services and a potential waste of taxpayer money.
First, I would note that the Fernald Working Group, a coalition of local organizations, had recommended that a portion of the campus remain the site of residential care and services for the intellectually disabled. Similar proposals have been made over the years by the former Fernald League and COFAR. Both of those latter groups suggested a “postage-stamp” arrangement under which existing residents would live in housing situated in a small area of the campus while the rest of the campus was converted to other uses. And Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy, the chair of a Fernald Reuse Committee, also publicly supported the continued use of part of the campus for institutional, residential and health care.
But the then Romney and subsequent Patrick administrations were interested only in one thing — closing Fernald and three other developmental centers in the state, contending the state would save tens of millions of dollars a year in doing so. They never considered any of the proposed alternatives to the closures, and have never done what administrations in other states have done, which is to propose the integration of congregate care facilities for the developmentally disabled with their surrounding communities.
The result is that since 2008, two of six remaining developmental centers in Massachusetts have been closed; a third center is being converted to state-run group homes, and just two residents of the Fernald Center remain on the campus out of a total of 160 who were there at that time. Most of the residents living in the four facilities targeted for closure were dispersed around the state, with the majority going either to state-operated group homes or to the Wrentham Developmental Center. Why has all of this been a missed opportunity and a potential waste of taxpayer money?
First, with regard to the cost to taxpayers, the administration projected that Fernald would be closed by July 2010, but the closure was blocked for four years by administrative and court appeals filed by guardians on behalf of some 20 remaining residents there. The administration elected to keep Fernald open only for the remaining residents there, pending resolution of their administrative and court appeals. This turned out to be an extremely inefficient way to proceed.
Not only has there been an undisclosed cost to the state in fighting the legal battle to close Fernald over the past decade, but as the population dwindled in all four targeted facilities, the cost per resident of care there shot up due to fixed costs such as heating and other utilities in larger buildings. This was particularly true for Fernald, which has remained open for more than four years with 20 or fewer residents.
The administration could have saved millions of dollars a year since 2010 had it been willing to consider and negotiate an alternative to outright closures of the facilities. The legal battle over Fernald would have ended immediately, and instead of continuing to house the remaining residents in several locations on campus, the state could have built small, cost-efficient housing in one location for the residents. That proposed alternative to closure has rarely if ever been reported on by the media, which has instead adopted the position of the administration and its corporate providers that the high cost of continuing to operate Fernald has been solely the fault of the residents remaining there.
Moreover, dozens of the Former Fernald residents were sent, as noted, to the Wrentham Center, which amounted to transferring residents from one developmental center to another. Not only was there no real savings in doing this, but the administration was forced to undertake renovations at Wrentham in order to accommodate the former Fernald residents — a project that cost taxpayers at least $3.2 million.
There is a second, and potentially greater, cost to taxpayers in closing Fernald and the other developmental centers without planning for any continuation of care at those sites that could be integrated with their surrounding communities. As we have noted, an undisclosed number of developmentally disabled people throughout the state have been unable to access services or care from DDS due to a lack of resources. The state has tried to address this problem by expanding the provider-run residential system, which has involved building more than 150 group homes spread around the state since 2008 and substantially increasing rates paid to the providers.
But there is no centralized system of care in the provider-run system. People have to be transported to day programs and for medical and other types of care — a process that is potentially much more expensive than if all of this care were available in centralized locations. Continuing to provide centralized care at developmental center sites could both allow more people in the surrounding community to receive services and provide those services more cost-effectively than is the case in a system consisting almost entirely of disbursed group homes.
We have also pointed out the potentially high cost of privatized care in Massachusetts and elsewhere due to the thick layer of highly paid corporate executives in that system.
That there isn’t necessarily a long-term savings in transferring people from developmental centers to decentralized, provider-based care has been acknowledged even by one of the leading proponents of deinstitutionalization in the Obama administration. I’ve blogged about a law journal article written by Samuel Bagenstos, a former top litigator in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, in which Bagenstos stated that any cost savings in closing developmental centers “will shrink as people in the community receive more services.” He added that a significant part of the cost difference between institutional and provider-based care “reflects differences in the wages paid to workers in institutional and community settings — differences…that states will face increasing pressures to narrow.”
All of this is why we supported the vision of the Fernald Working Group, which described “a progressive site at Fernald where open space and greenways can be matched with an equal vision of integration for individuals with disabilities.” That vision encompassed both existing residents and disabled persons in the surrounding community. The Working Group specified that this vision included new housing and the preservation of the therapeutic pool and gym at Fernald as well as the chapel and programs for physical therapy, dental and medical services. As the vision statement noted, “all of these services could become part of the community and economic life of the Fernald redevelopment.”
But as far as we can tell, the Working Group’s vision has not been adopted by either the administration or the Legislature. While the newly signed legislation to sell the Fernald land to the city provides incentives for adopting “smart growth principles” and affordable housing in the development of the site, it makes no mention of continued services or care for persons with developmental disabilities.
Last week, I emailed Senator Michael Barrett and Representatives Tom Stanley and John Lawn, the key sponsors of the land sale legislation, to ask whether the continued use of a portion of the Fernald campus for individuals with disabilities was considered in the negotiations over the bill and whether any provisions for that might be made in the future.
A staffer in Barrett’s office said that no proposals to serve the developmentally disabled at Fernald were made at a public hearing on the land sale bill that was held in July by the Legislature’s State Administration Committee, and the idea was therefore not considered. But while the Village at Fernald concept for the disabled may not have been raised at a public hearing earlier this summer, most, if not all, of the negotiating parties to the legislation have long been aware of that concept. It should have been a part of the legislation from the beginning.