After more than a year of study and repeated delays, state Department of Human Services commissioners are expected to vote Thursday on a plan to close Oklahoma's two residential centers for adults with developmental disabilities.
The agenda for Thursday's DHS commission meeting states commissioners will discuss and possibly vote on plans to close both the Northern Oklahoma Resource Center at Enid and the Southern Oklahoma Resource Center at Pauls Valley.
Residents would be transitioned into community-based settings.
The plan represents a shift from a proposal submitted by Commissioner Michael Peck last June to close just the Pauls Valley center and move some of its residents to the Enid center, while transitioning others into community-based settings.
There are 123 residents at the Pauls Valley center and 108 at the center in Enid.
The meeting is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday in room C-48 of the Sequoyah Office Building, immediately northeast of the state Capitol.
Unsure about options
The proposal has parents and guardians of residents in an uproar.
“I'm scared, and I don't know how to help my child now,” said Shelia Day, parent of Justin Day, a 21-year-old resident of the Southern Oklahoma Resource Center.
Shelia Day said her son has the mind of a 3-year-old and is visually impaired but is better off than most of the other residents because he is mobile and can talk.
She said her son has made remarkable progress at the Pauls Valley center and she is afraid he will suffer setbacks if forced to move.
Parents and guardians would have a prominent role in selecting community-based services for residents, but Shelia Day said she has had a difficult time finding out what options are available.
Commission Chairman Wes Lane said if commissioners decide to close the institutions, parents and guardians won't be expected to make overnight decisions.
“Any plan to close an institution would be a plan that contemplates taking over a year to do that,” Lane said.
Individual plans would have to be developed for each resident by DHS employees working closely with families and guardians, he said.
Ken Talley, president of the Parent Guardian Association for the Southern Oklahoma Resource Center, said he would like DHS commissioners to delay the vote again, but said he has been told his group won't be allowed to address the commission this time.
Legal action may be considered, he said.
“We would like to speak,” Talley said, adding that one thing his group wants to know is why the commission never answered a proposal his association made in July.
That proposal asked commissioners to immediately install fire suppression sprinkler systems in occupied residential buildings at the Southern Oklahoma Resource Center and prepare a report on how residents have fared who have left that center and similar institutions in Enid and Sand Springs.
The proposal also asked commissioners to appoint a working group of DHS staff, family members, guardians and employees to consider long-range plans for the centers in Pauls Valley and Enid.
Talley also noted that Oklahomans will vote on a state question next Tuesday that proposes abolishing the Oklahoma Human Services Commission and replacing it with a system in which the governor would appoint the agency's director and there would be several citizen advisory boards to the agency.
“They may not even exist as a commission after the state question is voted on, so why wouldn't you wait until then to decide if you want to close the centers?” he said.
Lane, however, said commissioners have been studying the issue for more than a year, have visited the institutions, visited community-based homes, talked with family members and guardians of residents and believe it is time to make a decision.
“Until the commission ceases to exist, it needs to do its business,” Lane said, adding he believes commissioners would the shirking their responsibility if they failed to act after going to such great lengths to study the issues.
“We're going to finish this so somebody else down the road doesn't have to figure this out,” he said.
The aging condition of the two centers has put pressure on commissioners to make a decision about their futures. Both were established more than 100 years ago and officials have estimated it would take $30 million to $40 million worth of improvements to keep operating them.
Many social work professionals have argued the money would be better spent transitioning residents into community-based settings, which has been the trend for years, both in-state and nationally.
Jim Nicholson, director of DHS's developmental disabilities services division, told commissioners last July that he believes experience has shown the quality of life for residents is better in well-run community-based settings than in institutions.
Newly appointed DHS Director Ed Lake supported that position in an Oct. 15 interview. He is expected to participate in his first meeting Thursday.
Parents and guardians, however, have expressed strong reservations, stating that after years of Oklahoma transitioning people with developmental disabilities into communities, most of the residents who remain in institutions are individuals with multiple severe disabilities, like low mental functioning, blindness, cerebral palsy and diabetes.
These are the individuals who are most likely to experience “transition trauma,” and perhaps even death, if forced to move, they argue.