With accounts of the compassionate and competent treatment their loved ones have received at the Fernald Developmental Center, advocates and supporters of Fernald kicked off their drive Thursday to stop the Romney administration’s plans to close the Waltham facility.
Under sunny skies but amidst windy and chilly conditions, the supporters held a curbside rally at the Trappelo Road entrance to the Fernald grounds. The message from the speakers, who included state legislators, a Waltham City Council member, family members of the Fernald residents, and staff and union officials, was consistent: Governor Romney has not made the case that closing Fernald and the other remaining state facilities for the retarded in Massachusetts will result in either state budgetary savings or in equal or better care for the current residents there.
"There is no other place in the Commonwealth where your tax dollars are being better spent," said state Representative Thomas Stanley (D-Waltham), drawing cheers from the crowd, that numbered over 100 people.
Stanley echoed the sentiments of many in the crowd when he remarked that "I’m afraid the real reason (for the planned closure of Fernald) is a power grab for the land."
Fernald, the state’s oldest facility for the mentally retarded, houses some of the state’s most profoundly retarded residents. In February, Governor Romney announced that he planned to close Fernald in the coming fiscal year and potentially five other state facilities for the retarded as part of his efforts to close a projected $3 billion budget shortfall. Several speakers at Thursday’s rally noted that Romney has declined invitations to visit Fernald and has not produced a cost/benefit analysis supporting his decision to close it.
State Senator Susan Fargo (D-Lincoln), who, like Stanley, is supporting upcoming budget legislation that would require a cost/benefit analysis before closing Fernald, maintained that the Governor’s projected savings don’t exist. "If there isn’t a savings, why are we doing it?" she asked, drawing cheers.
Several supporters in the crowd held signs, some in the shape of hearts, with messages that read: "We Are Part of the Community," and "Hey, Gov., Get Your Mitts Off Our Home." Cars and trucks repeatedly honked in support of the rally as they drove by on Trappelo Road.
COFAR members gave accounts of the high caliber and professionalism of the treatment their family members have received at Fernald. Catherine Gover, whose sister, Patricia, has been a resident there for more than 30 years, said her sister’s afflictions were considered so serious when she was born that she wasn’t expected to live past the age of 12.
"Patty is 38 and pushing 39, and it’s a testament to the fine level of care at Fernald," Gover said. "This is the only large facility for the mentally retarded in the greater Boston area. If it closes, all the professional services there will be scattered to the wind."
Tom Frain, President of COFAR, referred to a "continuum of care," of which Fernald and the other state facilities "hold a legitimate place." Frain maintained that the state will realize no savings in closing the facilities because the cost of care there "rises and falls with the person’s disability," and will follow the residents when and if they are transferred into the community.
Diane Booher, who has two brothers at Fernald, said that as a result of budget cuts last year, the long-time caretaker of one of her brothers was laid off. The result was that her brother began to develop extremely agitated behaviors, including kicking and flailing with his arms.
Booher coordinated the collection of more than 4,000 signatures from around the state, which oppose the closing of Fernald and the other state facilities. The petitions will be presented to Governor Romney in the State House in Boston next Wednesday (April 23 at 11 a.m.), when COFAR takes its fight directly to the Governor and the Legislature. COFAR members will also stroll around the State House, starting at 9:15 a.m. that day, contacting their legislators and pressing their case.
At Thursday’s rally, Kathleen McMenimen, Waltham City Councilor at Large and Dean of the City Council, said the entire City Council had unanimously passed a resolution oppose the closure of Fernald. "We are not NIMBY people," she said, referring to the Not-in-My-Back-Yard appellation. "We want Fernald to stay here."
McMenimen said Waltham officials are willing to work with the administration to reconfigure the campus in order to allow other uses on its 187 acres, while retaining it as a home for its current residents.
Beth Gray-Nix, head of occupational therapy at Fernald, described the ordeal of a mentally retarded man named John , who is spastic and a quadriplegic, and who was lying virtually neglected in a nursing home where he was fed through a tube and had lost 60 pounds. Gray-Nix arranged for his transfer to the MarQuardt Nursing Center at Fernald, where the feeding tube was removed and John soon began eating on his own and then regained the weight he had lost.