With the fast-approaching advent of the resignation of Developmental Services commissioner Morna Murray, deinstitutionalization ideologues have seized on this moment to reignite the push to shut down the Southbury Training School, a residential facility for individuals with developmental disabilities. The future of STS is not only wrought with practical consequences for the families and residents of the school, many of whom ardently support the school’s continuation, but represents an impasse in the treatment of the developmentally disabled in Connecticut.
While I don’t for a moment doubt the good intentions of many advocates, some calling for Southbury’s closure appear more concerned with moral posturing over the dissolution of an institutional dungeon that exists only in their own conception than dealing with the issue of the waiting list for families with disabled children. There is an incessant need for some folks to “prove” that the developmentally disabled “don’t need institutions,” and the closure of an institution that serves the neediest among us with dignity and integration is seen as the apex of a sort of civil rights crusade.
The privatization lobby has applauded efforts that tie one hand behind Southbury’s back, with all sorts of budget cuts and the termination vendetta on admissions, and has expected it to perform as well as the unchained group home model. To Southbury’s credit, they’ve largely arisen to that challenge. But with the arbitrary freeze on admissions, Southbury is left without the ability to implement economies of scale, reduce per patient costs and streamline operations. Forced to only retain the highest need clients through the natural self-sorting that has occurred with those leaving institutionalized settings, it is no surprise that Southbury has become a scapegoat for the unenviable problem of the Department of Developmental Services waiting list.
There is a manifest irony in the desire to shut the school down in that Southbury sits as an institution willing and able to open its doors to some on the waiting list who could benefit from the more stable care STS can provide. The campus is surprisingly well-maintained; even the buildings that have ceased to be used are scrupulously preserved for any potential future uses. If the privatization lobby’s ultimate concern is with individual choice, then they ought to support cutting the chains that bind Southbury from serving a real need.
Folks today have a predilection for wanting to take part in a great liberation movement irrespective of its actual merits; they want to revel in the change-making virtue that rightfully engulfed our civil rights forbearers. But it seems that privatization activists are fighting a ghost of Southbury from the 1960s; STS has had a myriad of dark moments in its history, but the Southbury of today is an entirely different entity from the institution that shared its admittedly substantial flaws with all other institutions of the day. Southbury has already taken tremendous steps to provide the highest degree of choice to their residents.
In the landmark deinstitutionalization ruling of Olmstead v. L.C., while the Supreme Court held that community placement ought to be available for all for whom it would be beneficial, the majority offered the following qualifier: “[w]e emphasize that nothing in the [Americans with Disabilities Act] or its implementing regulations condones termination of institutional settings for persons unable to handle or benefit from community settings…[n]or is there any federal requirement that community-based treatment be imposed on patients who do not desire it.”
The privatization lobby has bullied Southbury into irrelevance by condemning the facility to closure. It seems that the privatization lobby for community placements wants to show that because it is hard for Southbury to remain cost efficient with the highest need clients and the inability to create economies of scale, that the immediate liquidation of the institutional option is the only possible solution to the waiting list problem.
Amongst feigned calls of the supposed monopoly of the social science literature’s rejection of institutional settings for the developmentally disabled, David Kassel of the Home and School Association examined much of the work done in this area. What was eminently clear, he found, was that the hackneyed notion relayed by advocacy groups “that every single longitudinal study proves that institutional patients who move into the community fare better in the community,” fails to hold the universal water that activists would like to claim. Kassel notes “that those in the academic community, who have looked at this issue objectively and scientifically, have not reached a consensus that the community is better for everyone. Instead, the scholarly literature on this topic appears to support the contention that “one size doesn’t fit all.” Kassel cites voluminous amounts of literature on the topic, and while it may be true that community placements are superior for many of the developmentally disabled, for those “with severe and profound levels of disability,” and “those [who] are older or have complicated medical conditions, institutions such as STS continue to play a vital role in their care.”
For the good of the children and adults on the placement waiting list, we ought to open Southbury and allow those with disabilities and their families true choice in their care. The Southbury Training School is woven into the fabric of the town of Southbury, adored as a breathing opus of history and a statement of our community’s desire to serve the less fortunate. The arbitrary veil on Southbury admissions ought to end, and a new generation of the Southbury Training School will help resolve the moral blight of the waiting list for group home placement.