[Hpn] Sheltering disabled a challenge

William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Wed, 14 Jul 2004 07:53:24 -0400

Sheltering disabled a challenge

Caring for people with mental disabilities in group homes rather than
institutions can improve their lives, but only if the state pays enough,
insists on the highest standards and monitors operations closely. A huge
challenge: People in the community must be supportive.


July 14, 2004

Moving people with mental handicaps from big institutions into family-like
group homes is a great idea - in theory.
The tough part is setting up enough of the right kinds of homes - and
spending the money needed - to ensure improved care for our most vulnerable

That's why it is both encouraging and worrisome that the state plans to
gradually phase out Gulf Coast Center east of Fort Myers and another center
in Miami-Dade County. The closures are part of a settlement in a federal
lawsuit brought on behalf of the centers' residents by the Advocacy Center
for Persons with Disabilities in Tallahassee.
Abuse of residents was not a factor in the suit, although Gulf Coast Center
has had such problems.
The state agreed that community-based care is a right that should be
available more rapidly to the 300 people living at Gulf Coast Center, a
502-acre care institution in Buckingham. Gulf Coast is to close by 2010.

People with such disabilities can have better lives in the more intimate
setting of a well-run group home. The state was already moving toward group
homes, not only because community-based care is believed to be better, but
because it's expected to be cheaper. That's where the worry comes in.
Community-based care is not easy to arrange, and it cannot be done on the
cheap, although it may cost less than an institution such as the Gulf Coast
Center. Community care can be a disaster if it's driven by budget cuts.
Group homes actually can be worse than institutional care, with lower-paid,
untrained workers and residents neglected, abused and over- or

Lee, Collier and other counties in the region will face an enormous
challenge in finding enough people willing to provide group homes for Gulf
Coast residents over the next six years. The former employees of Gulf Coast
Center could prove an essential resource - but the state will have to
provide adequate money, administrative support, monitoring and enforcement.

The practice of putting people with mental problems into institutions out in
the sticks where they can be isolated, hidden away, ignored or forgotten is
an old one. (G. Pierce Wood Hospital for mentally ill people in Arcadia was
a good example.) But mainstreaming people with profound mental handicaps
also has critics, and rightly so. States traditionally have not provided
adequate money or oversight for group homes.

This worries parents of mentally disabled children, whose worst fear is that
their children will outlive them.
Thelma Weaver, 82, of east Fort Myers, whose profoundly retarded son, Randy,
51, has lived at Gulf Coast Center for 33 years, touches on another problem
of community-based care:
"To me, this is criminally insane because the children out there are not
wanted in the community. I call them children because in body my son is
grown up but in his mind he is 2 years old.

"California has had to open three institutions because the community did not
want them."

Will our communities react differently, or will we refuse to allow group
homes for mentally disabled adults in our back yards?