The Tennessean | article by Anita Wadhwani | Jan 12, 2015
|Greene Valley Developmental Center in Greeneville Photo: Samuel M. Simpkins / The Tennessean)|
The state has agreed to close a 40-year-old facility in east Tennessee for people with limited mental functioning, a move that advocates say marks a welcome end to an era of housing people with disabilities in large state-run asylums, often for the majority of their lives.
Under the plan, the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities will shutter Greene Valley Developmental Center in Greeneville by June 30, 2016, moving the remaining 96 residents into more home-like settings integrated into neighborhoods.
The plan to close Greene Valley is part of an overall agreement submitted in federal court last week. It would end a long-running lawsuit by advocates for people with disabilities, their parents and guardians, and the federal government against Tennessee over conditions in its institutions for people with intellectual disabilities, defined as possessing an IQ of 70 or less.
Those groups filed suit in 1995, after a Department of Justice investigation uncovered widespread abuses, including inadequate medical care, abusive treatment, failure to provide education and insufficient staffing at state institutions. The facilities have been under the federal court’s oversight since 1996.
A second large state-run institution, Clover Bottom Developmental Center, is scheduled to close this summer, five years behind schedule. About 20 residents still remain on that aging campus, which once housed 1,100, located near Hermitage in northeast Nashville.
Advocates applaud closure
Donna DeStefano, assistant director at the Tennessee Disability Coalition, said her organization has advocated for more than 25 years for people with intellectual disabilities to move into more community-like settings.
“People with all types of disabilities belong in the community with family and friends,” she said. “In institutions, staff are paid to be there. What happens is that everybody the person with disabilities knows is paid to be there. That’s an unequal relationship. In the community, it can be more equalized.”
But the move to close Greene Valley has its share of critics, among them loved ones of people who are living there, as well as staff and lawmakers who represent the area.
“The concern of Greene Valley and Greene County communities is about the welfare of the residents currently living in Greene Valley,” said Rep. David Hawk, a Republican from Greeneville. “These residents are the most medically and mentally fragile Tennesseans. It’s going to be difficult to find care for those individuals outside the setting of Greene Valley.”
Family members “do not want their loved ones to leave,” he said. Many are concerned they will be placed in private agency-operated homes far from Greeneville, making it difficult to visit, he said.
Job loss could hit town hard
And there is also the economic toll the closing will have on Greene County, a largely rural area that shares a border with North Carolina. Unemployment remains high in the area. It has lost most of its tobacco production, and other industries have either shut down or moved overseas.
At its peak, Greene Valley housed nearly 1,500 residents, and while the facility has downsized its staffing in the past two decades, it still employs 600 people.
Closing the facility would have a comparable economic impact on Greene County as the closing of Nissan's auto manufacturing plant would have in Rutherford County — in the proportion of the county’s workforce losing their jobs.
“This hurts, and it’s not just because of the 600 jobs,” Hawk said. “This hurts because the residents of Greene Valley are our families. Their family members are living in the community. The workers there live in our communities. The workers have become surrogate family members.”
But institutionalized care has come at a considerable price to Tennessee taxpayers. Costs for keeping Greene Valley open have soared, as a dwindling number of people continue to live on a campus built for 1,500. Today, the facility’s annual operating budget is $47.7 million — $420,253 per year per resident, according to the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
People leaving Greene Valley will continue to receive state services, but even intensive round-the-clock medical services in smaller settings cost at least $100,000 per year less for each individual outside institutions.
There is no detailed plan yet about how the state will transition residents from Greene Valley into new homes. DeStefano said she and other advocates will pay close attention to whether individuals are transferred into appropriate settings. A federal court monitor will also oversee the process.
A federal judge must approve the plan to close Greene Valley and to dismiss the long-running lawsuit that has cost the state more than $45 million over the past two decades. But the state, lawyers for parents and guardians of current and former residents of state institutions and federal attorneys have jointly agreed to the plan. A hearing on the matter is set for Jan. 21.