HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday signed into law a bill that calls for the state to close the Montana Developmental Center in Boulder by 2017 and move most of its residents into community-based services.
He signed Senate Bill 411, by Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena.
The Montana Developmental Center provides 24-hour care for severely developmentally disabled people, but also those who have mental illnesses or other diagnoses.
It has come under criticism in recent years after reports that its residents have been abused and assaulted, including sexually assaulted.
“After years of challenges at MDC and extensive debate, a bipartisan majority of the Legislature has overwhelmingly supported SB411,” Bullock said in his signing letter. “Although I have concerns about the approach taken by this bill, I have decided to defer to the Legislature’s policy determination.”
His decision drew praise from Caferro and another leading advocate for the disabled, but criticism from leaders of unions representing MDC employees.
“This took a tremendous amount of political courage on behalf of Gov. Bullock,” Caferro said. “He put people ahead of politics.”
Although people have focused on the impact of closing MDC on jobs and the economic impact to Jefferson County, Caferro said that’s not what her bill was about.
“It’s about people having disabilities being safe, having access to treatment and having the opportunity to realize their full potential, just like you and just like me,” Caferro said. “And everybody sitting down and collectively designing a new system.”
Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, executive director of Disability Rights Montana, said, “We are very pleased that the governor has taken this progressive and forward-thinking step. And we are looking forward to working with the 15-members transition committee in ensuring a smooth transition for all of the residents and to assure appropriate community services.”
Union leaders, however, were critical of the Democratic governor’s decision.
“I think it’s bad politics, bad policy and he shouldn’t have done it,” said Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT union. “There’s no evidence that anyone can present that by taking the state’s primary responsibility for the care and treatment of residents at MDC and transferring it to the private sector will be better treatment.”
“It’s a big hit, and obviously we’re disappointed,” said Timm Twardoski, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Montana Council 9.
He said he was disappointed that a number of legislators never went down to Boulder to talk with the MDC employees to see if there were other options than SB411.
The bill easily cleared the Legislature. The final version of SB411 passed by 44-6 in the Senate and by 60-40 in the House.
Bullock said he is committed to ensuring “that the population served at MDC has access to the safest and most effective treatment possible.”
He said about 24 of the 53 residents at MDC are ready for community placement.
“A lot has been said about who is responsible for those lack of placements, but in the end, it does not matter who is to blame,” he said. “We have a legal and moral obligation to work toward solutions.”
Bullock said he firmly believes Montana will continue to need a state-run facility or facilities for those not ready for less restrictive, community based placements.
“Nothing in SB411 precludes such a possibility,” he said.
Bullock said the bill was amended at his administration’s request to provide the 200-plus MDC workers a voice on the transition planning committee and to require that panel to consider a repurposing of the campus.
“While my first priority is the safe and effective treatment of the individuals who live at MDC, I am also committed to making sure that the people who care for them can successfully transition into other jobs and to considering all options for use of the campus,” the governor said.
“I want to make clear my signature is not a condemnation of the community of Boulder or the dedicated workers of MDC, who for decades have embraced MDC and its residents,” he said.
“They deserve our collective thanks and respect for the hope they have created and maintained for people with developmental disabilities.
“I am committed to working in partnership with the Boulder community to make sure that the workers at MDC continue to have meaningful employment and that the campus of MDC continues to serve both the state and contribute to the community.”
The state institution for the developmentally disabled in Boulder once housed more than 1,000 residents, but now has 53 clients. The institution has been in Boulder for 122 years.