LAST WEEK, the Patrick administration announced it would appeal a federal court decision in August requiring it to keep open the Fernald Development Center for the mentally retarded. Instead of wasting money and good will on litigation, administration officials should meet with families of Fernald residents to discuss ways of keeping their loved ones in the place they have been in for decades - while making other parts of the campus available for other purposes.
In forcing the state to offer Fernald as a continuing option to its residents, Judge Joseph Tauro leaned in part on an investigation of the facility completed for him in March by US Attorney Michael Sullivan. In his report, Sullivan said that forced transfers out of Fernald for some of its residents "could have devastating effects," undoing the positive effects of years of good treatment. Some, he said, "could suffer an adverse impact, either emotionally or physically," if forced to move.
Many of Fernald's profoundly retarded residents also suffer from chronic diseases and disabilities, such as blindness. At Fernald, they have access to a skilled nursing facility, a dental clinic, and swimming pool. Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, secretary of health and human services, says that many residents of state-run settings like Fernald who have transferred to community facilities have received equal or better care.
But family members remain skeptical, saying that community residences rarely if ever can offer such close-by services as Fernald does. Family members also say Fernald has had lower levels of staff turnover. As appropriate as community-based care is for the roughly 8,500 Department of Mental Retardation clients in privately operated group homes, Fernald family members say that their relatives would suffer from the dislocation of a move away from the facility. They challenge state figures showing the annual cost of a Fernald resident at more than twice that of residents in community settings.
Fernald's Waltham campus encompasses almost 190 acres, much of which could be suitable for housing or other development. In advocating that a portion of it remain open for the care of their relatives, family members speak frequently of carving out just a postage-stamp sized section for the needs of the center's shrinking population. At one point, more than 2,000 called it home. Now just about 180 do. But it is their home, and, as Sullivan said in his report, the Fernald staff have become "family to the residents who rely on them every day for the most basic needs that we take for granted."
Bigby and other state officials should take pride in the good marks that family members generally give to Fernald. Officials should work with them on a plan that lets residents live out their lives there and also opens the door to better use of Fernald's acreage.