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JOAN VENNOCHI

A fair shake at Fernald

CHANGE IS hard. It is not always terrible.

That is the Commonwealth's argument when it comes to efforts to close Fernald Developmental Center. But families of Fernald residents aren't buying it.

Fernald is home to 241 residents with severe mental retardation. Their families are fighting the closing, along with unions that represent Fernald's 800 workers.

''A lot of it is fear of change," says Don Stewart, representing the ARC of Massachusetts, a statewide advocacy group for individuals with disabilities, which supports the Fernald closing as a way to integrate people of all abilities into the community.

The Fernald families are focused on a small but critical picture: their lives, their loved ones, their needs.

Gerald Morrissey, commissioner of the state Department of Mental Retardation, is in charge of implementing the big picture. It includes overseeing the closing of large, state-run facilities coupled with a move to smaller community-based settings to care for the mentally retarded.

Is it a way to save money? Yes. Is it also a way to provide equal or better care? Yes, insists Morrissey. He says a federal court order that requires that standard is ''crystal clear."

Taking his word requires trust. And Morrissey, commissioner since 1997, deserves it, according to Benjamin Ricci of Amherst, who filed a landmark federal suit in 1972 on behalf of his son and other residents of state-run facilities. The son who was supposed to go to Harvard was born in 1948 with mental retardation. Following medical advice of the era, Ricci placed his son in a state-run facility in Belchertown. There he found conditions he calls ''truly barbaric." His suit ultimately led to dramatic changes in the care and treatment of the mentally retarded in Massachusetts.

Benjamin Ricci, now 82 and professor emeritus at UMass-Amherst, says, ''I don't trust the state a whit. I do trust Gerry Morrissey." He credits Morrissey, who started his state career in 1974, with helping his son transition to a community-based setting after Belchertown closed. ''If it weren't for Gerry, it wouldn't have happened," he says.

But, Ricci, author of the book ''Crimes Against Humanity," also says families of the most vulnerable are right to question the state and demand commitments about the future placement.

Here are Morrissey's responses:

He says he is giving families of Fernald residents five alternative living options. However, he cannot guarantee a Fernald resident who is moved to another state-run facility won't be moved again if that facility also closes. That, he says, is the honest answer to the question families pressed him on during a recent meeting.

Once Fernald closes, he says, the $40 million a year now allocated to Fernald's operation will not revert to the state's general fund. Morrissey says the money spent at Fernald will not be saved ''on the backs of the people living there." The residents have ''lifetime rights" guaranteed by the federal court, which require the money allocated to their care to follow them. The state currently spends $174,213 per Fernald resident; it must spend whatever it takes to sustain equal or better care elsewhere.

It will take three to four years to find appropriate settings for Fernald residents. The most severely disabled --. around 40 to 50 -- will still require facility-based care, and the Commonwealth will make sure they get it, as the court decreed. ''There never should be and never will be a debate about the rights that have been given to these individuals," says Morrissey.

He says the governor and Legislature are committed to guaranteeing the rights and proper care of Fernald residents. ''We have a fundamental responsibility to take care of people. We are doing it. This is not a resource issue." says Morrissey. Governor Romney's budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year calls for a 5 percent increase for the Department of Mental Retardation.

As for job protection, Morrissey says that when the state-operated Dever facility closed, ''we made a commitment to Dever employees who wanted to stay in state-operated programs. For those who didn't choose that option, we offered other options available within a 30-mile radius." Morrissey said he would welcome a similar arrangement with Fernald workers. AFSCME, which represents about 600 of the 800 Fernald employees, has declined to discuss alternatives; SEIU, which represents a much smaller number of employees, endorses Fernald's closing.

''These are difficult choices. They are not cruel," says Morrissey.

It's about change. But it's mostly about trust.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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