Ready, Willing and Disabled

The state's treatment of the developmentally disabled isn't broken. So why does Colorado want to fix it?

Giving up her daughter to the state was the hardest thing Ellen Laurence has ever done.

Four years ago, Laurence and her husband decided they could no longer cope with Annie, now eighteen. Born autistic, Annie suffers periodic seizures and often becomes highly aggressive. As a young teenager, she had been expelled from school after injuring three teachers in just one week, and simply trying to control her was becoming a full-time job for the Laurences.

Annie's parents desperately wanted her to remain part of the family, but the older she got, the more disruptive she became.

Occupational therapist Wendy Sime is the legal guardian for Mary.
Brett Amole
Occupational therapist Wendy Sime is the legal guardian for Mary.

"Our values and reality did a head-on crash," says Laurence. "We were a family held hostage by our child."

After being turned down by 43 different agencies, the Laurences learned that the state-operated Wheat Ridge Regional Center was willing to accept Annie into one of its group homes. When Laurence had toured what was then called the Ridge Home almost thirty years before as part of a class project, she'd been horrified by the impersonal treatment of people with developmental disabilities (today the preferred term for those once described as mentally retarded). But now she was pleasantly surprised to find that the state cares for Ridge residents in group homes that house just six to eight residents. The homes each have full-time staffers who become like family. Medical services are provided by doctors who work for the regional center, and each resident receives comprehensive care that includes everything from specially fitted wheelchairs to physical therapy.

Annie has thrived since she moved into the home.

"Annie was in diapers when she was admitted," says Laurence. "Now she's completely toilet-trained. She came home at Christmas without diapers and was able to share Christmas Eve services with the family. That's something I'd wanted to do for eighteen years. She's made big strides there."

The state employees who care for the residents in Annie's group home are deeply committed to those with disabilities, Laurence says. "The people who are involved with Annie in just one day have over seventy years' experience," she points out. "This is their career; it's what they've done for years."

But they may not be doing it much longer. Under a proposal the state unveiled last fall, clients such as Annie would be moved to privately operated group homes. Already, developmentally disabled people with less severe problems than Annie's are cared for in such private facilities, where few employees stay more than a couple of months because of the low pay -- sometimes no more than $7 an hour -- and meager benefits. Now state officials are pushing an expanded privatization plan as a cost-saving measure, even though it would save just $1.5 million over five years.

And at what cost?

Parents of the developmentally disabled now in the state system say the proposed plan would be a disaster for their children, who could suffer from neglect, if not outright abuse. Almost unanimously, they praise the care their children have received at the state centers for the disabled in Wheat Ridge, Grand Junction and Pueblo, and they describe the private homes as little more than glorified warehouses.

"If I was convinced the services in the private sector were the same as the state's and just as stable, I would have no problem with Annie being moved," says Ellen Laurence. "But I don't feel that's the case. There's huge staff turnover, and they don't have the same qualifications. In some cases, they receive as little as eight hours of training. At Wheat Ridge, everyone gets at least fourteen weeks of training."

The proposal to move hundreds of developmentally disabled residents into private group homes and lay off 524 state employees is being pushed by Marva Livingston Hammons, the director of the Colorado Department of Human Services appointed to the post by Governor Bill Owens last year.

Hammons, who declined to be interviewed for this story, reportedly was startled by the angry reception her privatization proposal has received so far. After dozens of parents showed up at a December meeting of the legislature's Joint Budget Committee to protest the plan, several legislators said they, too, were skeptical of the proposal.

Hammons has promised to present legislators with a revised plan by the end of this month.

Although Hammons got an early start in Denver's human services system, she earned a controversial reputation when she moved on to more powerful jobs in Michigan and New York City. She's an enthusiastic proponent of privatizing government services and has spearheaded welfare-reform efforts in her previous positions. She has also endorsed budget cuts that some critics say played a role in the murder of a six-year-old New York City girl, as well as the death of a Michigan social worker.

Fearing what similar cuts could do in Colorado, parents of developmentally disabled children say they're haunted by stories of what happened to the mentally ill who once filled state asylums. Many of these residents were discharged into the community in the 1970s, taking with them promises that they would be cared for at outpatient facilities. Instead, hundreds of them wound up homeless, wandering the streets and living in shelters or filling up jails.

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