Sonoma event Leslie photo

Patrick Leslie, a chaplain at the Sonoma Developmental Center, speaks about the facility’s need for good publicity at a public forum hosted by California Watch and the Sonoma Index-Tribune. Anna Vignet/California Watch

SONOMA, Calif. – California’s largest full-time care center for the severely disabled needs more staff and accountability to correct major internal breakdowns that led to dozens of cases of alleged patient abuse, staff members said Wednesday at a public forum.

The Sonoma Developmental Center, one of five state-run board-and-care facilities, has been in crisis mode since last month, when the center lost its primary license to operate for repeatedly exposing patients to physical and sexual abuse and shoddy medical care.

Katrise Fraund, a longtime senior psychiatric technician at the Sonoma Developmental Center, said the scandal has clouded the typically high quality of care offered at the institution, whose patients have cerebral palsy, severe autism and other intellectual disabilities.

“Abuse of the disabled has happened all along at group homes and state facilities,” Fraund said. “There’s just less oversight in group homes than there is at Sonoma. The reality is you do what you can to fix it. You have to keep oversight and then focus on the things that work.”

Records reviewed by California Watch, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting, showed patients, parents and staff members at the Sonoma center had reported a dozen sexual assaults in the past four years. But the center’s internal police department, the Office of Protective Services, failed to order a single hospital-supervised rape examination for any of these alleged victims.

Regaining the trust of the community and repairing the image of the Sonoma center will take time, Fraund said. The center now houses more than 500 patients, about 300 of whom are living in “intermediate care” units that are covered under the current closure order from the state.

“If I tell someone I work at the Sonoma center, they’ll say, ‘Isn’t that the place where you rape clients?’ ” Fraund said. “So at this point, I tell people I’m a secretary.”

Fraund was one of more than 140 people who attended a packed public forum Wednesday hosted by California Watch and the Sonoma Index-Tribune to discuss the future of the Sonoma center. Officials with the state Department of Developmental Services, which oversees the center, were invited to attend the free event, but declined.

The Sonoma center is appealing the loss of its license with state public health officials. Earlier this month, the Department of Developmental Services agreed to forfeit more than $1 million a month in federal funding for failing to protect severely disabled patients from abuse at some of the center’s housing units. The federal funds cover as much as half of the treatment costs for patients who qualify for the federal program.

Daniel Solnit, a union representative for workers at the Sonoma Developmental Center, warned that closing the facility would devastate the local economy, put thousands of people out of work and shunt hundreds of vulnerable patients to lesser-quality group homes.

“The center is the biggest employer in Sonoma County,” Solnit said. “Closing this place would put the entire county into a serious economic recession.”

The Sonoma center employs more than 1,000 people in the region. Solnit said it provides specialized services for developmentally disabled people like teaching programs that are not available at comparable for-profit group homes.

“The patients aren’t just sitting in front of a TV all day,” Solnit said. “Yes, there were some bad apples at Sonoma. But for every abusive person, there were many people who devoted their lives to their patients with care these patients couldn’t get anywhere else.”

Patrick Leslie, a chaplain at the Sonoma Developmental Center for 20 years, called the center a “wonderful place” that needed to be built up rather than torn down in the wake of abuses uncovered at the institution.

“If my sister was living (in the U.S.), I would want her to be at Sonoma,” said Leslie, whose sister has Down syndrome. “I trust and respect how professional and caring they are. Going forward, we need to break down the red tape and move past negative publicity.”

Circe Bisby, a senior psychiatric technician who has been at the Sonoma center for 23 years, said the problems at the center stem from a lack of staffing and inefficient administrative rules that encourage workers to clock long hours to net overtime pay.

Bisby said accidents happen when the center is chronically understaffed and people are expected to work far longer than eight-hour shifts. Bisby said her responsibility at work has grown considerably: She administers drugs to patients, supervises caregivers on her shift, conducts in-room care with patients and fills out administrative paperwork during a normal shift.

“Workers are just numbers to these people (administrators),” Bisby said. “The internal culture needs to change.”

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Amy Julia Harris

Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.