HELENA – A Senate committee has rejected a bill that would downsize and possibly close Montana’s state institution for the developmentally disabled.
The Senate Public Health Committee on Friday voted 5-2 against sending Senate Bill 254 to the Senate floor, essentially killing the measure that could have closed the Montana Developmental Center in Boulder.
Those who voted against SB254 said the state is in the middle of trying to make improvements at the center and should be given a chance to carry out those changes.
“I think we have to have faith that (state) management is going to do the right thing, and I’m willing to let that play out,” said Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge. “It would be draconian to treat the program going forward as though none of these (changes) have happened.”
Yet Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena and sponsor of the bill, said she’s not convinced that MDC is improving the safety and services for its 50-some clients.
The facility has two dozen clients who are ready to be transferred to community-based programs, and the Legislature and state should be doing what they can to speed that process, she said.
“This place is not cleaned up, and people are still not safe there,” Caferro said. “It’s our responsibility as a Legislature to support the least-restrictive environment (for the developmentally disabled).”
Richard Opper, director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, which oversees MDC, said Monday the Senate committee’s decision acknowledges that progress has been made under the center’s new management.
“We are committed to providing a safe environment for clients being served at MDC,” he said. “We are equally committed to working with providers to help clients who are ready, move back into the community.”
Opper also said the main reason the two dozen MDC clients haven’t been sent to community programs is that the local providers aren’t necessarily ready to take them.
SB254 called for creating a committee to plan the reduction of MDC’s population to no more than 12 people by the end of 2014. It then would decide whether to keep a scaled-down facility at Boulder or treat people at other state facilities.
The 120-year-old facility in Boulder houses about 50 people who have mental disabilities. Some also suffer from mental illnesses. It employs about 250 people and has an annual budget of $15 million.
In 2010, an MDC staffer pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a developmentally disabled resident. Critics of the facility said then it had shown a “pattern of abuse” toward clients, and a state Justice Department report suggested center officials didn’t cooperate fully with an investigation of the crime and other possible crimes.
Since then, the state has appointed a new superintendent at MDC and vowed to overhaul the center’s focus and staff training.
Caferro tried to amend her bill Friday so any possible MDC closure would be delayed until after the 2015 Legislature, but supporters of the facility said that change didn’t make the bill any better.
“It would create two years of uncertainty, making it very hard to attract employees,” said Sen. Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell, whose district includes Boulder. “So you almost get a self-fulfilling prophecy of poor service. I feel that the Boulder facility is doing a pretty good job.”