Advocates clash in fight over future of Missouri’s habilitation centers

By Christi Warren

JEFFERSON CITY – Advocates for Missouri’s developmentally disabled converged on the Capitol Monday to testify about a bill that would mark the beginning of the end for state-run residential habilitation centers.

In the House’s latest effort to balance the state’s budget, a bill by Rep. Rick Stream, R-St. Louis County, proposes shutting down all six of the state’s currently running habilitation centers by Jan. 1, 2018. The state would implement the transfer of the current residents from state-run residential centers to privately arranged, community-based care.

The new program is expected to save the state an average of $75 per client per day — a savings that the Department of Mental Health calculates to be more than $100,000.

Bill supporters see this as an opportunity for the evolution of the way mental health patients are cared for; Angela Gourley, a mother of a son with developmental disabilities, said institutional living is “on its way out.”

DeAnna Noriega, a representative from the Disability Coalition on Health Care Reform, supports the bill for the advantages she believes a community living situation can provide and said the bill is “an important move in the right direction.”

“Helen Keller would never have achieved the things she did had she not had the support and services that her parents provided through Anne Sullivan’s intervention so that a deafblind child could develop to her full potential and give the world many great things,” Noriega said.

Bill opponents said the bill disregards the recommendations of a 2006 report by a Mental Health Task Force that no habilitation center should be closed as long as it’s needed — and according to bill opponent Talisha Weiss, they are.

In the Weiss family’s search for a new living space for her cousin, they were met with closed doors at the closest facility to their home, the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center. Because of the program’s popularity, there were no beds available. Instead, her cousin lived in the Nevada center until his transfer to the center in Poplar Bluff, three hours from their family’s home in St. Clair.

New applicants to the state-run habilitation program are met with what Weiss describes as “frozen beds,” meaning the facilities are closed to newcomers, despite the program’s purported popularity.

Weiss described her experience with what are collectively referred to as “hab. centers” as wonderful.

“They became his family, they became his home,” Weiss said. “They watch movies together, they do activities together, they’re used to having these families. And now their families are all being torn apart, and I don’t think it’s right.”

Bill opponents also worry about the state’s ability to provide the same level of care currently available to habilitation center patients, especially with regard to severely retarded patients, to residents of the proposed community-based environments.

Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-St. Louis, who has experience from 23 years as a special education teacher in St. Louis County, remains torn.

“I like the idea of plans, I like that they’re sitting down and developing plans,” Montecillo said. “(But) I don’t know that I’m ready to say that we need to close all ‘hab. centers.'”