News & Events

Governor’s Fernald and Community-program Vetoes Overridden

MANSFIELD, Mass. — In a move to forestall a potential crisis in care for the mentally retarded in Massachusetts, the House and Senate last week successfully overrode vetoes by Governor Mitt Romney of legislation protecting state-operated facilities for the mentally retarded from summary closure.

The House and Senate also overrode the governor’s vetoes of nearly $700,000 in funding for the state facilities and more than $4 million in funding for community-based care for the retarded.

"The Legislature has prevented a full-blown crisis that would have been caused by the governor’s vetoes," said Thomas J. Frain, President of COFAR (the Massachusetts Coalition of Families and Advocates for the Retarded). "We are thrilled with these overrides. It made no sense for the governor to close down state facilities for the mentally retarded; it saves no money and causes enormous anxiety and suffering for hundreds of mentally retarded people and their families. If the vetoes had not been overridden, hundreds of mentally retarded residents in the commonwealth would be facing eviction."

The Legislature’s actions save the Fernald Developmental Center in Waltham from closure prior to October 2004 and ensure that a committee will be established to study the reuse of the Fernald site in order to keep at least a portion of it as a continuing home for its 300 residents.

Late last month, the governor vetoed language in the fiscal year 2004 state budget, which would require that a cost-benefit analysis be done before either Fernald or five other remaining state facilities could be shut down. That language would also require that the Department of Mental Retardation predetermine, prior to transfer, that any residents transferred from those facilities would receive equal or better care in any proposed community-based setting. The governor had also vetoed an outside section of the budget, which called for the establishment of a reuse committee to consider alternative uses for Fernald’s 187 acres of land, while maintaining the site as a continuing home for its current residents. The state facilities in addition to Fernald are the Wrentham Developmental Center, the Monson Developmental Center, the Glavin Center in

COFAR and other advocates for the retarded have been lobbying since April against the governor’s plans to close the state facilities, which provide state-of-the-art care for the retarded. COFAR has argued that given a continuing lack of adequate funding and oversight of community-based care in Massachusetts, the proposed state facility shutdowns would place the well-being and even lives of the state’s retarded citizens at risk.

In addition to his vetoes of the state-facility-protection measures, Romney vetoed more than $4 million in funding for a range of programs for community-based care for the retarded. According to Frain, the governor’s vetoes of community-based funding would have meant the closure of 25 group homes in Massachusetts "at the very least."

The community-based system is currently unable, due to inadequate funding and oversight, to provide the level of comprehensive care currently provided to residents of the state facilities, said Colleen Lutkevich, COFAR’s executive director. Under Ricci v. Okin, a landmark class action lawsuit that led to improvements in the care in state facilities starting in the 1970s, residents are entitled to a wide range of services over their lifetimes, including residential and day programs, recreational activities, medical, dental, psychological services, respite care, crisis intervention services, adaptive equipment, guardianship services, and transportation. A significant portion of the approximately 1,300 residents of Fernald and the other state facilities are among the most severely and profoundly retarded in the state, many are elderly, and many have acute medical needs.

The governor’s vetoes came less than a week after COFAR delivered a final set of petitions to Romney’s office containing signatures collected from more than 14,000 people across the state who oppose the facility closures. Romney never responded to several invitations from COFAR and from legislators to visit Fernald before making a final decision on its closure.

The governor first announced in February that he was targeting Fernald and potentially the five other remaining state facilities for the retarded in Massachusetts for closure as a budget-cutting measure. The administration, however, has never provided backup figures for what have turned out to be declining savings projections in closing Fernald. The administration first projected a $4 million savings in closing Fernald, and later revised that projection to $2.3 million. COFAR contends the closures will put the entire continuum of care for the retarded in Massachusetts at risk—without saving the state money.

In addition to saving the Fernald Center, the Legislature’s overrides mean reprieves for a number of other facilities on the Fernald grounds, including a skilled nursing facility for 27 people with mental retardation, two state-operated group homes housing 12 people, and a shelter for homeless women.

Since the governor announced his intention to close the facilities, COFAR volunteers have made at least three visits to the State House to lobby for the facility protection legislation and to deliver petitions to the governor’s office.