Gracewood closing sparks family fears

Kathy Robinson got choked up Wednesday talking about her brother, John, who has been at the Gracewood wing of East Central Georgia Hospital for years, along with other severely disabled people who are all now slated for community placement.

“If they could be in a community home, do you not think these parents would have kept them in their home?” she said. “We didn’t do it by choice.”

By 2015, however, all 240 developmentally disabled patients at Gracewood, along with about 91 more at two other institutions, will be moved out, state officials said.

At a meeting of the East Central Georgia Family Council at Gracewood, officials sought to allay family fears by pledging that in the community placements “the care will be equal if not better than in a hospital,” said Commissioner Frank Berry, of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities. “We can’t sacrifice quality.”

Berry said he saw the same high-tech equipment in a new group home in the Thomasville area as in the state hospital.

“I’ve seen it work,” he said. “I’ve seen the homes.”

After meeting with the Gracewood families in February, Berry said, he put a 45-day freeze on new placements and will “double-check” on the 80 placed last year to ensure those were the right placements.

Where they will go will be the choice of the patient and family, Berry said.

“The goal is ultimately to offer options, to show people a variety of different kinds of homes,” he said.

In a 2010 settlement with the Department of Justice, the state pledged to move all patients out into a community setting in five years, Berry said.

“By 2015, if I fulfill my job, there will be nobody in our state hospitals with developmental disabilities,” he said. “And therefore this would be an empty campus.”

Many of the group homes have yet to be built and will have to meet strict standards, Berry said. All of the providers will have to be licensed by his department and the Georgia Department of Community Health, Berry said.

“These are licensed, certified homes with a significant amount of oversight,” he said.

Many of the staffers in the homes will be people who previously worked in the state hospitals.

“They don’t want to get out of serving the people they have been serving,” Berry said. “The hope is they will go work with the new providers that are building these (group) homes.”

But Gracewood parent Theresa Senior said a group home monitor she talked to said they could go into a home only if there was an incident.

“That’s like having nobody (watching),” she said.

“That’s unacceptable,” Berry said.

In fact, the state might make unannounced inspections in the homes, said Charles Li, the assistant commissioner for developmental disabilities.

Many families simply would not believe their loved one would be as safe and cared for as well.

“They don’t have 24-hour nursing care in group homes,” Senior said.

Berry said that he “miscommunicated” that earlier and meant that the staffers would be there around-the-clock.

Michael Quarterman, whose brother, Matthew, is legally blind, paralyzed from the waist down and nonverbal, said he doesn’t believe there is a safe move out of Gracewood.

“You can’t move somebody out who can’t fend for themselves,” he said. “This right here is unacceptable.”

Left unaddressed for many families is what happens to a campus and buildings recently renovated, and to patients who families fear will more than miss it.

As she looked around, Robinson questioned “why somebody in their right mind would close a facility like this.”

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