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Court advised to save Fernald

Families objected to losing facility

US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan yesterday urged that a controversial center for mentally retarded people in Waltham be kept open based on the findings of his yearlong investigation, which could spell the end of a state push to close the Fernald Development Center over the vehement objections of many families.

Governor Mitt Romney had called for the center to be closed and for the dwindling number of residents to be moved from the 190-acre Victorian-era campus to decentralized group homes and other smaller facilities. But family members argued that many of the aged, profoundly retarded residents had never lived anywhere else and that relocating them would endanger their health and safety.

Sullivan, who was asked to help resolve the debate by US Judge Joseph L. Tauro, concluded that the 189 remaining residents should be allowed to stay unless they voluntarily choose to leave, saying the state owes it to "some of the Commonwealth's most vulnerable citizens." He said that the residents have lived at Fernald for an average of 47 years and that "Fernald is their home."

"We're really celebrating Christmas here," said Beryl Cohen, the lawyer for Fernald residents for more than 30 years. "It's a repudiation of the Romney policy and the beginning of the new governor's response."

Governor Deval Patrick has not yet said whether he supports the Fernald Center, which costs about $60 million a year to operate and sits on prime real estate that developers have eyed for years. A spokesman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services said state officials would have no comment until they have fully reviewed Sullivan's 27-page report.

Tauro, who oversees conditions at state institutions for the mentally retarded, does not have to accept Sullivan's report, but he is likely to give the document great weight, because he requested it. Sullivan is expected to appear in Tauro's Boston courtroom to discuss his findings today.

Sullivan declined to elaborate, saying that he would wait until today's hearing to respond to any questions that the court might have. But he called his role as monitor "one of the highlights of my role as US attorney."

Other advocates for the mentally disabled were not pleased, however, arguing that even people with extreme disabilities should have more freedom than the residents of the highly structured Fernald center are allowed.

John Thomas, deputy director of the Arc of Massachusetts, an advocacy group that has called for phasing out Fernald, said he was disappointed with Sullivan's recommendation that it remain open. As a result, some Fernald residents "are not going to realize and appreciate the kind of independence that we feel they are deserved," Thomas said.

The fight over Fernald's future has been building for years, as the state Department of Mental Retardation increasingly placed mentally disabled people in group homes or provided home care instead of centralized institutions, which became increasingly costly as Judge Tauro ordered dramatic improvments in living conditions. The Fernald center went from a high of 2,000 residents in the 1950s to fewer than 200 today.

Romney moved to phase out the facility in 2003, beginning a process of voluntary relocations that ultimately transferred 49 long-term residents to other facilities. But Cohen and other advocates for the center charged the state was coercing the families of residents to go along with the plan, violating Tauro's 1993 ruling that the residents could never be forced to move to an inferior home.

In February 2006, Tauro ordered the Department of Mental Retardation to stop the transfers until Sullivan could complete his investigation of conditions at Fernald, as well as the quality of the facilities where people were transferred.

In his report, Sullivan rejected assertions that the state had violated residents' rights or sent them to inferior facilities even though six residents died within two years of the transfer. However, he described in great detail the fragile community of people he found still living at Fernald, many of whom have an IQ of 25 or below. Their average age is 57, including a 95-year-old resident who has been at the center for 81 years.

"This very fragile segment of the Massachusetts population strives for simplicity and constants to thrive and conduct their daily lives," he wrote, "and the threat of change does have an impact on the physical and emotional health of some of the residents."

After being warned that Fernald was slated for closing, one family voluntarily transferred a child who "had been cared for brilliantly at Fernald for over 40 years," only to receive a call within the year that the child was found on a floor and had died, the report says.

"Today they ask themselves, in an attempt to do the right thing, had they failed their child," wrote Sullivan, adding that the same fear grips others who worry about what will happen to their children if they are forced to leave Fernald.

Sullivan's report praised the smaller state facilities and many of the group homes visited by Sullivan and his staff.

But he said he was concerned about data that showed residents were at greater risk of being abused or neglected in privately run community homes than at state operated facilites.

Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com; Allen at allen@globe.com.

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