Friday was a hard night for advocates at the COGFA hearing on the closing of the Murray Developmental Center in Centralia. It is emotional and heartbreaking when I think about the way our system has failed people who deserve to have a full life in the community. Thankfully, Governor Quinn has taken the leadership to finally begin to correct decades of neglect by past Governors and legislators with his rebalancing initiative.Last Tuesday, advocates met to discuss strategies for the hearing on the Murray closure. We always do this to review testimony and make arrangements for our press conference. For the first time, advocates expressed concern over our safety at the hearings. Over the years, I have felt uncomfortable at these closures hearings, such as Lincoln and Howe, but this was the first time advocates expressed the fear of potential personal harm. As a result of this discussion, I offered to express our concerns to COGFA staff and the authorities in Centralia. I called the Chief of Police to express our concerns and he explained to me the precautions they were taking for the hearing and the precautions were many. I have not seen as many police present at past hearings, but the Murray hearing had many police and I was aware that there were also undercover police. I was pleased that I had expressed the advocates’ concerns.As I entered Centralia on Friday afternoon, I was greeted by signs up and down the road, in people’s yards and businesses, signs stating “Save Murray.” They were also very prominent on the high school grounds where the hearing was to take place. So much for a neutral setting for the hearings!I was escorted to the library where the press conference was to take place, the same room that the opposition was to have their press conference! My escort was a principal of the high school, wearing a “Save Murray” shirt. In fact, most staff in the school including students were wearing the same shirts.
The Mayor of Centralia Tom Ashby sought me out to reassure me that the citizens of Centralia would be respectful of our positions and welcomed our presence in their community. It never ceases to amaze me of the power of The Arc and our advocacy across the state. Everywhere I go, people know who we are and what we represent. The mayor made me very proud to be your Executive Director. Members of the media also knew who we are.
In preparation for the hearings, we hold a press conference about a half hour before the hearings begin. This is a good time to talk to the local media so our opinions can be expressed outside of the circus of the hearing. This is a critical messaging time for us.
Tony & Cheryl Jansen from Equip for Equality
As it turned out, we had dueling press conferences Friday afternoon. AFSCME in one corner of the library and the advocates in the other corner, but we did get our message across that all people with disabilities can lead fulfilling lives in the community with proper supports. That people labeled as having the most severe disabilities benefit most from community living. We were honored to have Mr. Paul Richardson speak with us about the success his daughter has made after 40 years of living at Murray. In fact Mr. Richardson is now able to visit his daughter every evening before she goes to bed because she lives within walking distance from his home. Thank you, Mr. Richardson for your courage in sharing your story.
We then went to the hearing which began at 3:30 p.m. and ended at 9:00 p.m. It was another parade of pity and pain which is so hard to hear because I always think about what life might have been for the individuals at Murray. The advocates were outnumbered about 30 to 700, far from the expected 1,500 to 3,000 reported by the media before the hearing.
Secretary Saddler, Michael Gelder and Mark Doyle did an excellent job of outlining the rebalancing initiative and the need for supporting community services to COGFA members and local legislators. Director Kevin Casey was outstanding during his grilling by local legislators who want to see state institutions stay open, but the Director responded about the importance of supporting individuals in the community and the need to begin addressing children and adults on the waiting list. We are fortunate to have Director Casey here now in these critical times of rebalancing. He knows how to do this.
Of course, the local legislators were concerned more about the local economy than the quality of life of those people living in state institutions. Similarly the state employee union AFSCME was stating that the community did not have the resources to support individuals in state institutions.
The hearing went on and on, the presence of police was remarkable. The advocates were confined to a roped off section of the hearing area where I was seated. I finally got to present my testimony around 8:20. I had submitted written testimony and most of the legislators know what we stand for, but what I wanted to convey to them was that not only are there 14 states without state institutions, but that there are now 9 states with less than 150 individuals in state institutions. I shared with the legislators in attendance that in a few years, 50% of the states would be without state institutions! What do these states know that Illinois does not?
US Rep Jerry Costello and Senator Forby at the hearing.
Other advocates providing testimony were Barbara Pritchard, Community for All Coalition, Cheryl Jansen, Equip for Equality, Rob Gould, Institute on Disability and Human Development UIC, Diana Braun, Council on Developmental Disabilities, Bill Gorman, Statewide Independent Living Council, Ruth Thompson, Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities of Illinois and many more self advocates.
I left the hearing with a lot on my mind. I drove for about an hour and spent the night in another hotel away from home.
For me and others, these hearings take an emotional toll. It takes me about three days to lose the depression of these hearings and the way Illinois has failed to support a successful transition to community living and crushed the hopes of the families and guardians. This rebalancing must succeed and we now, at long last, have the leadership to make sure this happens.
Here is some TV and news coverage of the Murray hearing.
CENTRALIA — A crowd consisting mostly of supporters of keeping open the Warren G. Murray Developmental Center filled the Centralia High School gym Friday afternoon for a hearing on whether the center should be closed.
Most in the crowd wore green T-shirts with “Save Murray Center” printed on them. They included family members of the Centralia center’s roughly 275 residents, as well as employees and other supporters.
But there also were a few representatives from groups that advocate for people with disabilities, who said institutions are not the proper settings for such people.
Illinois State Sen. James F. Clayborne, Jr. speaks out against the closure of the Murray Center during the hearing at Centralia High School on Friday. – Zia Nizami/BND
The hearing began about 3:45 p.m. and ended about 9 p.m. About 80 witnesses — elected officials from the region, advocates for people with disabilities, community members, employees of the center and others — gave testimony to the state’s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. Some witnesses were not able to testify before the hearing ended.
The group will make a recommendation to the governor on whether the center should be closed, but the recommendation is only advisory.
Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed closing Murray Center and other state facilities as a cost-saving move. Quinn’s staff also says people with developmental disabilities generally do better in so-called community-based care, rather than institutions.
Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, who is the Senate majority leader, gave a statement at the hearing, and mentioned that his first cousin resides at Murray Center. He said closing the center would cause “devastation” to the region’s economy.
“It is certainly not the right thing to do during the aftermath of this great recession,” Clayborne said.
Rep. John Cavaletto, R-Salem, told the commission, “Change should be decided by the parents, not the state of Illinois.” The crowd cheered and had to be gaveled.
Michelle Saddler, secretary of the Department of Human Services, told the commission members she’s from St. Louis and is familiar with Murray Center and the region.
“I’m not here to criticize Murray,” Saddler said. “But I am here to talk about the constraints and demands that are placed on our system … that lead us to recommend change.”
Saddler said DHS recommends closing the center mostly as “a policy decision,” not a financial one. She said community-based care is better for people with disabilities, and only two states have more people in institutions than Illinois.
But Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, said he thinks the decision is about money, and that the state is trying to balance its budget on the backs of workers and people with developmental disabilities. “This is not right,” he said.
Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton, said the region would lose about 875 direct and indirect jobs if Murray Center closes. Based on the area’s population, that would be “like 115,000 jobs lost in Cook County,” Costello said.
Rep. Paul Evans, R-O’Fallon, grilled Kevin Casey, director of developmental disabilities for DHS, about why Murray Center was targeted for closure instead of other developmental disabilities centers operated by the state. Evans asked Casey if he was surprised by Quinn’s choice of Murray Center.
“No, I wasn’t particularly surprised,” Casey said.
“I’ve heard otherwise, sir,” Evans replied.
As for the effect on the area’s economy, Casey said if the closing of state facilities was based solely on that criteria, none would ever be closed. He said new jobs will surface in the region at private care facilities, rather than jobs that have been built around “19th- and mid-20th-century science.”
A resident of Murray Center, Kimberly Leonard, testified. “Please save our home. Thanks for your time,” she said.
Barb Pritchard, of the Community for All Coalition, an advocacy group for people with developmental disabilities, brought with her to testify two former residents of state institutions, who said they prefer living outside such facilities. Pritchard said residents of Murray Center deserve “a chance to achieve their dream.”
Sen. John O. Jones, R-Mount Vernon, said the only way he could accept closing the center is if Quinn visits Murray Center’s residents to “look these people in the face, and look them in the eye,” and then tell them it has to close.
Before the hearing began, supporters of Murray Center and supporters of community-based care had dueling press conferences.
At the pro-closure news conference, Tony Paulauski, director of Arc of Illinois, an advocate for people with disabilities, said institutional care is “like having a school without computers.”
“We’re talking about going back to the dark ages with institutions,” he added.
At the pro-Murray Center news conference, Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, accused Quinn of “bullying” the region.
Centralia Mayor Tom Ashby said elected leaders from five counties favor keeping Murray Center open. “We all stand as neighbors to Murray Center,” he said.
Cavaletto told supporters at the news conference: “Do not stop writing. Do not stop emailing. Do not stop calling the governor.”
Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, said he wants to ask Quinn: “Why are you picking on Southern Illinois?” The Tamms prison, in Phelps’ district, also is targeted for closure by Quinn.
Murray Center employs about 550 people.
According to Quinn’s office, it costs about $41 million a year to operate Murray Center. A Quinn spokeswoman has said it costs the state $150,000 to $200,000 yearly for a person in institutionalized care for the developmentally disabled, compared to about $80,000 per year in community-based, private care. Under Quinn’s plan, the state would provide money for people with disabilities to be placed in community-based care.
Quinn’s staff estimates the state will save about $22 million a year by closing Murray and a similar center in Jacksonville.
The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability has a May 19 deadline to issue a recommendation to the governor. The commission recommended that Jacksonville Developmental Center be kept open, but Quinn is proceeding with plans to close it. Copyright 2012 Belleville News-Democrat. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at email@example.com or 239-2511. Follow him on Twitter at @B_Brueggemann.
Read more here: http://www.bnd.com/2012/04/20/2148929/follow-live-tweets-from-the-murray.html#storylink=cpy
Tony Paulauski Executive Director
The Arc of Illinois
20901 S. LaGrange Rd. Suite 209
Frankfort, IL 60423