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Community Advocates Respond To Efforts To Keep Fernald Open
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
July 20, 2004

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS--Advocates for community services, including former residents of Fernald Developmental Center, gathered at the State House Friday to call again for the closure of the 156-year-old facility and the other state-run institutions that house people with mental retardation.

"We need closure. We need that school to be closed," said Joan Souza, who lived at Fernald from the 1950s to 1970s.

"I don't miss it. I'll tell you that," said Ruth George, 58, who left Fernald 31 years ago.

Friday's press conference was organized in response to a legal maneuver earlier in the week by parents of Fernald residents, who have been battling Governor Mitt Romney's plan to close the aging institution. Romney announced in February of last year that the institution would shut down by October 2004 and its then 302 residents moved to other state-run facilities or into homes in the community. The governor hinted that closing Fernald was the first step in his plan to de-institutionalize the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Efforts by parents of Fernald residents and local leaders have effectively slowed the process so that only a few dozen have been moved -- mostly transferred to other facilities.

On Wednesday, attorney Beryl Cohen, who represents the interests of parents of Fernald residents, filed a legal brief calling on U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro to reopen a class-action suit that parents had filed against the state in 1972. That suit charged that the institutions were understaffed, that staff were not properly trained, and that conditions were inhumane. The case ended in 1993 with an federal court order requiring the state to provide residents with "equal or better facilities" in the "least restrictive, most normal, appropriate residential environment."

Cohen argued that the state's recent decision to close large institutions, and move the residents to smaller, community-based settings, has jeopardized the health and safety of those still inside.

A coalition of more than 80 disability-related organizations have joined The Arc of Massachusetts in its efforts to force an end to large institutions, which they consider and out-dated form of segregation. Their gathering Friday at the State House was intended to show support for Romney's plan.

"We think it essential for Governor Mitt Romney to stick to his guns for full closure and invest in the communities," said Leo Sarkissian, executive director of The Arc of Massachusetts. "Statistics show it's eventually going to close. We need to reinvest in the community."

The state currently spends $160,000 annually on each resident at Fernald, providing three staff members for every resident. Community advocates say this money would go a lot further, and would provide a level of independence, freedom and individualized service that institutions simply are not equipped to provide.

"There's no need to segregate individuals," said Sarkissian. "It's a matter of civil rights."

Monday's Daily News Tribune featured a story about Ruth George, who told of being raped twice, along with suffering other indignities, while a resident of Fernald.

"I don't want to go back there," she screamed, when asked about the facility. "I don't want to go back there."

"Closed-minded" (Daily News Tribune)
"A State Girl's survival story" (Daily News Tribune)
"The Transition to a Community Service System should not be impeded" (The Arc of Massachusetts)
"Fernald Developmental Center -- Oldest Institution In the Americas" (Inclusion Daily Express Archives)


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