Fernald Developmental Center

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Disabled Patients Fight For Care As Institution, Slowly, Shuts Down

In case you missed it (or don’t subscribe to The Wall Street Journal) check out this excellent story about the few remaining residents of the Fernald Developmental Center in Waltham, which is the oldest state-run institution in the nation for men and women with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

There are 13 residents left, The Journal reports, and their families, bucking the national deinstitutionalization trend that began decades ago, want them to stay put and receive the individualized care they’ve come to depend on.  The state says it’s time to go:

Massachusetts wants to move the last residents from Fernald and sell the 186-acre property. But their families want them to stay, saying Fernald’s experienced caregivers and familiar surroundings are irreplaceable. The matter has gone to court.

A Community at a Crossroads

About 30,000 people remain in 160 state-operated facilities in the U.S., including many who face similar dislocations. Like those at Fernald, they tend to be older, with complex physical and psychological needs. Many require one-on-one care.

Families say uprooting people with such limited coping skills is too traumatic. State authorities say smaller settings are better than larger public facilities; they cite thousands of successful transfers.

What is different about Fernald is that its residents have legal rights others don’t. In a class-action suit, they were awarded in 1993 a guaranteed level of care, regardless of cost, to compensate for decades of abuse and neglect.

Those costs, indeed, are high. It costs $10.9 million a year to keep Fernald open for 13 people, state officials said. The per-resident cost at Fernald is about four times the national average of $220,119 spent at other state-supported institutions, according to a 2013 report by the University of Colorado. About a third of the cost to run Fernald pays to run a utility plant built to power buildings that are now mostly unused…

The dispute puts Massachusetts in the uncomfortable position of uprooting some of its weakest residents in a messy court fight.

“It’s a horrible dilemma,” said Michael’s mother, Linda Martin. Her son functions on a level of someone between the ages of two and six. He is capable of hurting someone or himself, without apparent provocation, said Mrs. Martin, who carries M&M candies to placate him during visits.

Kevin Fitzgerald, severely autistic and institutionalized as a child. (George Hicks/WBUR)

Kevin Fitzgerald, severely autistic and institutionalized as a child. (George Hicks/WBUR)


A horrible dilemma is right. Recently, we reported on Kevin Fitzgerald, a severely autistic man institutionalized since childhood who was moved into a state-run group home as a young adult.

Kevin, who was losing his eye sight due to cataracts, but had huge problems finding a surgeon to treat him because of his erratic, sometimes scary public behavior, is one of about 32,000 people with intellectual disabilities (what used to be called mental retardation) eligible for services in Massachusetts, Continue reading