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The folly of closing Fernald

THE 186 aging residents of the Fernald Development Center now receiving intensive treatment on the state-run campus deserve to live out their lives in familiar surroundings without fear of eviction. Deinstitutionalization is not the right remedy for every man and woman with mental retardation, despite the assertions of advocates for group homes.

The Romney administration wanted to close the remaining five state campuses that serve 987 men and women, many of whom suffer multiple physical handicaps in addition to retardation. Fernald in Waltham would have been the next to go if not for US District Judge Joseph Tauro, who halted transfers in 2006 pending the results of a report from US Attorney Michael Sullivan.

But that didn't stop a guileful state Department of Mental Retardation from telling Fernald families and guardians that the institution would be closed, causing needless anxiety to patients and families. In March, Sullivan made the sensible recommendation that Fernald should remain open. Tauro, in turn, proposed a formal ruling that the state make clear in future communications that remaining at Fernald would be among the living options for residents.

Faced with a human services dilemma, the Patrick administration is ducking the issue and whining instead that a federal judge has no business intervening in a state matter. If anyone has a right to intervene, however, it would be Tauro, who monitored Fernald for decades. The real issue is the wisdom of allowing mentally retarded residents, including many with complex medical problems, to remain in the only home they know and receive the consistent services they need from a staff that includes on-site doctors. This is a question of common decency, not states' rights. And the right answer is to leave Fernald residents in place and in peace.

Most advocates for the mentally retarded argue that home-based services or group homes for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities are more dignified and less expensive than institutions. They are absolutely correct when it comes to the great majority of the 32,000 people served by the Mental Retardation department. The fervor of the deinstitutionalization cause, however, should not outweigh the individual knowledge of Fernald families. And general cost comparisons aren't much help when looking at an overall population that includes mildly retarded people capable of holding jobs as well as elderly people who need feeding tubes and constant care to survive.

Elin Howe , the incoming mental retardation commissioner, should be crafting a solution that makes economic and therapeutic sense. Meanwhile, the Patrick administration should stop sparring with a judge whose rulings are consistently in the best interest of Fernald residents.

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