Families shocked over decertification of developmental center

SONOMA, Calif.

The center has had a troubling history of reported abuses and poor investigations by its police force. And now, the Department of Public Health has moved to shut down a major portion of the center -- the program that cares for patients with severe disabilities who aren't bedridden but live on the premises.

"If they close us, I mean, I don't know what we're going to do," Kathleen Miller said.

Miller heads the group of family members and advocates of those being treated at the Sonoma Developmental Center. Her autistic son Dan is one of some 300 residents with severe disabilities. If the center is shut down, she will have to find someplace else for him.

"I don't know where that's going to be," Miller said. "I mean, that's what's really scaring families like me, because that's my kid."

She says the institution was making positive changes. That's why she was truly surprised by the news. But that's not how state regulators see it.

The Public Health Department, which monitors the state's five developmental centers, concluded that after years of non-compliance, patients at Sonoma have been repeatedly put at risk of injury, sexual abuse, and even death.

In particular, the center's internal police force -- the Office of Protective Services (OPS) -- has been under fire for its lax investigations.

In 2006, a U.S. Justice Department review found that the department's investigations "fail to reconcile evidence appropriately, fail to include interviews of relevant staff and residents… And fail to determine the cause of serious incidents."

The Public Health Department's decision to yank the center's operating license comes after a series of reports by ABC7 News and its media partner California Watch. They include an incident in the fall of last year, where a dozen patients at the center had been tasered.

The Office of Protective Services discovered a taser gun in the car of staff member Archie Millora. He was later fired but never criminally charged, nor was anyone else.

Decertification would mean the loss of tens of millions of dollars in Medicaid funding for the program at Sonoma. Federal funding pays for much of the $300,000 dollars a year care per resident.

Miller still has faith that the center will make the necessary changes, "It's very shocking and very disturbing and I hope they're going to give us some time to turn it around."

The Sonoma Developmental Center says it will appeal the order and that it will continue making changes. They've started by asking the assistant chief of the CHP to temporarily take over their internal police force.

The Public Health Department says the Sonoma center can stay open and continue receiving federal funds during the appeals process.

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