HELENA - Lily Studencki suffered from autism and went three years without mental health services until her parents asked a judge to commit her to the Montana Developmental Center in Boulder where she now receives treatment.
“If she had not been placed there, she would be dead by now,” Lily’s mother, Anna Studencki, said Tuesday on a press call from the MEA-MFT conference room in Helena.
After graduating from Great Falls High School, Lily was denied services by community providers. While living with her parents, she began running out of the house, escaping out its windows and vaulting in the front seat of the family car to open the front doors while her mother drove on the highway.
“Like my daughter, the individuals at MDC are those for whom there are no qualified services in the community because of the severity of their problems. They are danger to themselves or to others,” Studencki said.
Studencki addressed the press along with other parents and citizens who gave statements about their experiences with MDC and explained why they were asking the governor to veto Senate Bill 411, which has passed both the Senate and House with bipartisan support. The concerned individuals warned the governor that the facility should be fixed, not closed.
Gov. Steve Bullock’s decision whether to pass the bill into law greatly impacts about 50 residents and 250 employees in Boulder — the town that has hosted the state institution for the developmentally disabled and mentally ill residents for 122 years.
Supporters have presented reports of abuse and neglect, saying most residents can be moved to safer, community-based programs, while a governor-appointed committee decided whether to keep the 12-bed secure unit open.
“The intent of SB411 is to develop a safe system for people who have developmental disabilities and one that provides active treatment,” wrote Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, sponsor of the bill, in an email April 23. “It is not about destroying MDC. They already did that to themselves.”
Opponents have said it would be difficult to find places for its severely disabled residents in privately run, community programs.
“I resent the arrogance of Mary Caferro, who has decided what our handicapped children’s needs are without understanding their disabilities. For our children it is MDC, not group homes,” Studencki said.
The MEA-MFT, a state labor union representing staff at the facility, sent email copies of an anonymous resident’s written testimony against SB411. The resident’s name was redacted for legal and medical reasons.
“When I first arrived here I was a complete wreck. I hardly talked to anyone. I kept everything to myself, my anger, my sadness, hurt, depression, and suicidal thoughts, but MDC didn’t give up on me,” wrote the 28-year-old resident. “All the staff, shift managers, therapists and other treatment team all gave me the chance to be a better successful person. MDC has saved me from myself.”
Sabrina Steketee, a resident of Boulder and daughter of a former superintendent at MDC, said the group planned to send their messages and the messages of residents to the governor in the coming week.
“I think [staff] is getting thrown under the bus by a group that has been determined for over 20 years to close MDC,” Steketee said in regards to Disability Rights Montana, a nonprofit which has supported SB411. “… This group realized that if they were ever going to get MDC closed, they needed to start sensationalizing abuse at MDC by dramatizing over and over the worst incidents they could find and then just vaguely referring to ‘lots more,’ letting the implication linger that horrific abuse is just going on all the time.”
In investigative reports dated from January to April 2013, the Montana Department of Justice substantiated eight staff-on-resident allegations and 11 resident-on-resident allegations of abuse and neglect. The DOJ received 159 allegations of resident abuse in 2014, of which 55 were substantiated.
Steketee, like other citizens and parents, think Caferro and DRM “sensationalized” the reporting of incidents.
“Only eight allegations [of staff-on-resident abuse] have been substantiated and they are not very dramatic,” Steketee said. “They point out the absurdity of what gets labelled ‘abuse.’”
“Most of these allegations of abuse are what I would consider high school disputes between kids calling each other names. The political correctness of this age has been way beyond common sense,” said Stan Danielson, of Antelope, who is a father of a patient at MDC.
When asked about specific allegations of physical and sexual abuse that have been substantiated in the eyes of the court, he said, “Those sexual abuse cases are heinous, but you must not paint the whole facility with one big wide brush because one person did something bad.”
But “isolated incidents,” such as the Jan. 28 alleged rape of a 19-year-old resident by an older resident with a history of sexual aggression in the facility’s secure unit, “don’t only happen at MDC,” said Steketee, who added that allegations of assault also occur at group homes and prisons. “As long as we continue to underfund and under staff, those incidents are going to happen at MDC and everywhere.”
Parents said they have not witnessed any abuse at the facility and asked where their children would end up if the governor closed MDC?
They recognized Lowell Bartels, founder of Farm in the Dell and interim chaplain at MDC, who wrote an op-ed on April 8 in the Independent Record that argued closing the facility would be fiscally irresponsible. And they spoke highly of Christopher Abbott, a Helena-based public defender who testified before legislators Feb. 6 that he supported the continued existence of the facility and said a common problem he faced was finding placements for developmentally disabled individuals accused of crimes.
“MDC’s existence is necessary because there are people who cannot safely live in the community, do not belong in prison, but cannot find a community-based placement willing to take them,” Abbott wrote. “… No matter how cohesive a network of private and community placements there may be, there will always be a few that either cannot access that network or who need a higher level of care for their safety and the safety of others. An institution of last resort is needed. The solution to the problems at MDC is to solve those problems, not to throw its patients to the wolves.”