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Fernald's future unclear despite US finding

Report warns of intimidation

Supporters and families of Fernald Development Center residents applauded when a judge walked into a federal courtroom yesterday to hear US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan present his report on a yearlong investigation that recommends that the beleaguered facility remain open.

Extra chairs and benches to accommodate an overflow crowd were carried into the courtroom, where the mood was jubilant as Sullivan read his findings. The 27-page report, which was released Tuesday said, "Our office has concluded that some residents at Fernald could suffer an adverse impact, either emotionally or physically, if they were forced to move from Fernald."

Sullivan recommended that Fernald remain open to provide services to the "most vulnerable" people in the Commonwealth and that residents be allowed to stay there if they choose. The report gave the state good grades for maintenance of its facilities for the mentally retarded and for its handling of recent transfers from Fernald.

The lawyer representing the Department of Mental Retardation, Marianne Meacham, said the state had worked cooperatively with the US attorney's office during the yearlong investigation and said the agency was gratified that the report found the department to be in compliance with the transfers.

But she said the state disagreed with references in the report to some abuse in community and group homes. She said the department plans to submit a response to that issue and asked that Judge Joseph L. Tauro lift his ban on transfers put into effect in February 2006 pending Sullivan's report.

"We ask the court to vacate the order prohibiting transfers from Fernald," she said.

Nine people are interested in leaving Fernald and have been waiting a year, Meacham said.

Tauro said their families could wait until the next hearing, May 31, or file motions to allow a transfer. Tauro took the request under advisement and will probably address it at the May hearing.

Marilyn Meagher, whose sister, Gail, has lived at Fernald since 1956, said she was pleased with Sullivan's report, but said she wishes the issue could have been resolved sooner.

"I'm disappointed that we have to wait until the end of May, but I still think it's positive," she said.

Tauro told DMR Commissioner Gerald J. Morrissey and Meacham that the state should not be hurrying longtime residents out to sell off the land, which is prime real estate.

"Why are we pushing them out the door? The land isn't going to get less valuable," he said.

Beryl W. Cohen, a lawyer representing families of Fernald residents, read a letter addressed to one of the Fernald families and printed on DMR stationery, which stated, "As you know, the Fernald Developmental Center is closing, and remaining at the facility will no longer be an option."

Tauro called the letters "attempts at intimidation," and told officials from the Department of Mental Retardation to stop sending them. "Don't tell anyone it's going to close," Tauro said. "You may be wrong on that. I'd be very unhappy if another letter like that went out."

Sullivan's report found that the state's six institutions for the mentally retarded were well-maintained, clean, and well-staffed and that the state Department of Mental Retardation properly handled the most recent transfers of 49 residents out of Fernald. Sullivan's office determined that residents who had been relocated were receiving equal or better care.

The report also says, however, that "our office did note some very concerning neglect and abuse trends in contract vendor-operated community residences, as compared to the [state institutions] and state-operated community residences. These neglect and abuse trends, particularly sexual abuse, were of great concern to our office and shows that residents in our community homes are at a greater risk of being abused and/or neglected."

While the future of Fernald remains unclear, both sides, the state as well as the families, praised the investigative work of Sullivan and Rayford A. Farquha, assistant US attorney.

Diane Booher, past president of the Fernald League for the Retarded , said their findings "spoke to the spirit of the law" and went to the "heart of the matter."

Cohen told the court that Sullivan's four visits to Fernald were "unhurried."

"Sullivan visited every building, every floor, every room at Fernald," Cohen said. "He was not surrounded by administrators, security, or lawyers. He dealt with everyone as equals. He was on his knees talking to people in wheelchairs."

Fernald's 196-acre campus in Waltham once housed more than 2,000 people. Today, it houses 189 residents , many of whom have lived there all their lives.

In 2003, Governor Mitt Romney announced plans to phase out the state's six institutions for the mentally retarded and slated Fernald as the first to close. Families and relatives of some Fernald residents protested the plans, saying the state was evicting profoundly retarded and severely disabled people from their homes.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.

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