Debate follows closing of state-run school for disabled

LEAH BETH WARD YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLICFebruary 23, 2009 

SELAH -- Meet Michael Carpenter, 41, who lives in an apartment with a caregiver in Ellensburg. He works, rides public transportation and is active in a disability-rights group.

From age 5 to 14, Carpenter lived at Yakima Valley School, a state-run facility in Selah for the developmentally disabled.

"The institution was not a good place for me to live," he said. "I wasn't able to go out and do things like I do now."

Now meet Don Senger, a 6-foot, 275-pound, 55-year-old man. He's paralyzed on his left side and makes sounds, not words. When frustrated, he sometimes swings his strong right arm at the nearest person.

After his father died, his mother, Irene Senger, 78, tried to care for him by herself but simply couldn't manage. For years, he was shuttled between nursing homes, group homes and a state mental hospital. Nobody could handle him. Nobody wanted him -- until his mother got him into Yakima Valley School nine years ago.

Now he's "doing great," she says.

The two men represent two sides of a passionate debate that's emerged since Gov. Chris Gregoire recommended closing Yakima Valley School as part of cutting the state's budget.

To some, Yakima Valley School is a home where the most vulnerable in society get loving and professional care from experienced staff.

To others, the school is an archaic -- and expensive -- place where the disabled are hidden from the community, deprived of a chance to live more independently.

Those who philosophically oppose such care have seized on Washington's budget crisis to advance their case for community living. And those who prefer the existing system have mounted letter-writing campaigns and plan a trip to Olympia today to lobby legislators.

Meanwhile, the debate has parents like Irene Senger fearful for their children's' future.

"Where will he go? Will I be able to see him?" she asks.

The state Aging and Disabilities Services Administration, which oversees the school, would contract with private providers to move residents into group homes, apartments or nursing homes by 2011. Residents also may be transferred to one of the four other state-operated residential schools.

"We don't know exactly where people would go. Those discussions haven't occurred yet," said Kathy Leitch, assistant secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services.

While it costs $17.7 million a year to operate the school, the state predicts it would save only $1.2 million a year to move all the residents to other settings and close the school. That's because the state still would be financially responsible for them.

One persistent question is why the Selah school was selected for closure ahead of the other five state-run facilities. Gregoire's advisers say it's because the residents' conditions are judged among the least "acute."

But school supporters say that score is artificially low because many of those who stay at the school for days or weeks at a time for respite care -- when families are given occasional breaks from caregiving -- are severely disabled or medically fragile.

The state Aging and Disabilities Services Administration stands by its assessment.

The school's size also is a factor, officials said. With 87 residents but a capacity of 112, Yakima Valley School is the state's second-smallest institution.

Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, doesn't buy that. He points to a 2002 study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee that concluded Yakima Valley School was the second most efficient of the five schools.

The same study, however, also concluded that Yakima and Lakeland Village near Spokane were the most obsolete because they are the least used.

For years, Alex Deccio, the veteran Republican state senator from Yakima, nearly single-handedly kept the school open with help from former Reps. Jim Clements, R-Selah, and the late Mary Skinner, R-Yakima.

Their combined seniority and willingness to negotiate with Democrats bought the school relative security. The current 14th District delegation lacks that clout.

The state says it could serve three developmentally disabled people in the community for every one now living at the school. And dollars and efficiencies, not quality of care, may be the heart of the issue when the Legislature is ready to consider the school's fate.

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