PETERSBURG, Va. (AP) - Craig Anderson is unable to move on his own, speak or feed himself. He's 54 years old, but displays the innocence and the mental capacity of an infant, and suffers myriad medical difficulties that require around-the-clock care.
On a recent day he caressed his Curious George plush monkey as his mother visited him at the state-run Southside Virginia Training Center. He's lived there more than 50 years, after doctors diagnosed him "as they said in those days, 'profoundly retarded,'" Gerri Anderson said.
Anderson and about 220 other Southside residents have about two years to find new facilities under a proposed $2 billion agreement between Virginia and the U.S. Department of Justice that would shut down 4 of the state's five training centers by mid-2020. Southside would be the first to close, by June 30, 2014.
Parents' groups representing residents of several training centers say they're pursuing legal action to halt or slow the closures. In a letter to U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney, they said those "most affected by this terrible settlement agreement have been given no opportunity to be heard."
They contend that closures would violate their relatives' rights under federal disability law and urged Gibney for a chance to voice their concerns about the deal before he gives any final approval, according to the letter. The law requires patients or their representatives to consent to their transfer, that community-based services must be appropriate for their needs, and that their disabilities can be reasonably accommodated outside the institution.
Gibney has set a Friday deadline for anyone seeking to intervene formally in the settlement to file briefs in the case.
Families and guardians say that many communities lack adequate privately-run services for those with profound needs, and the state lacks adequate oversight to guard against neglect and abuse. They're concerned about their loved ones' safety, and in some cases, their lives.
"I know that he won't survive, and I won't either," said Gerri Anderson, who is 82 and knows she won't be around much longer to look out for her son. Her husband passed away several years ago.
State officials have said the settlement would provide for a comprehensive transition of all people to community-based services, including case-management services and a system of oversight that would monitor compliance with standards of care.
Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services spokeswoman Meghan McGuire says the agency would use information from training center families and staff to develop new residential facilities and specialized medical, dental and crisis-response services "so that the unique needs of each individual are met when they transition to more integrated settings in the community."
Some advocates for people with intellectual disabilities welcome the closures, saying it will end "warehousing" people who should be integrated into their communities. They say that doing so would free up state funding that could help shorten lengthy waiting lists for Medicaid "waivers." Under such waivers, people with intellectual or developmental disabilities give up their right to state institutional care in exchange for tailored services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
"Transitioning from an institutional to (a) community-based system of support will not only protect the civil rights of those currently living in training centers, it will allow the commonwealth to provide aid to thousands more who are in desperate need for services," Glenn Slack, president of the Arc of Virginia, said in a letter to Gov. McDonnell.
The state estimates that the average annual cost of care for training-center residents is about $216,000, compared to $138,000 in a comparable intermediate-care facility. The settlement would create about 4,200 home- and community-based waivers for people who are on waiting lists. The General Assembly can add more, but the state is obligated to provide at least that many.
Of the $2 billion, $935 million would come from the federal government. State officials estimate that by closing the four centers, Virginia would save about $340 million over 10 years.
Under the agreement, Northern Virginia Training Center in Fairfax is to close by June 30, 2015; Southwestern Virginia Training Center in Hillsville by June 30, 2018, and Central Virginia Training Center in Lynchburg - the state's largest with 400 residents - by June 30, 2020. About 1,000 people live in the centers that are slated for closure.
Judy Scott, president of a group representing relatives of Southside training center residents, said she and other parents do support community-based services, but they don't necessarily work for the profoundly disabled. She and her husband have been looking for privately run homes for their 37-year-old son, Kent Olsen Jr., who has Down Syndrome and severe autism. He had spent some time in group homes years ago but had to be institutionalized after he started attacking his parents and trying to jump out of moving cars.
Police arrested and charged him after he chased a jogger and pulled her down, she said. A judge then determined that he was incapable of being responsible for his own actions.
"He's as strong as five people," said Rod Scott, Olsen's stepfather. "It was a scary thing for us."
James W. Stewart III, commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, told the families at a briefing in Petersburg that consolidating the centers "is no longer on the table." But he assured them that the settlement provides adequate safeguards and that his agency would work with each affected family to ensure that their loved ones can be placed in the proper community-based settings.
Many parents and guardians told Stewart that they had little confidence that they'd be able to find adequate care, especially in such a short time. They said their children and siblings are being forced out of what works for them into situations that state officials hope will work. They also noted that a number of training-center residents lack parents or guardians to safeguard their well-being.
"How are you going to get these things done in two years? I've looked at some of these homes and they're despicable," said Audrey Hall, whose brother has lived at Southside since 1954. "What is going to happen to them in two years? We're going to have to find some place for them, and not just throw them away."