News & Events

Plaintiffs allege worsening conditions at Fernald Center as they seek renewed court oversight

MNA Position Statement

BOSTON — As they sought renewed court oversight over the Department of Mental Retardation, plaintiffs in the case gave accounts Wednesday of declining living conditions at the Fernald Developmental Center and DMR indifference to their input in the care of their family members.

"Tonight, you wouldn’t want to go there [Fernald] and put your head down on a pillow and turn out the lights," said Beryl Cohen, the attorney for the Fernald, Belchertown, Monson, Wrentham, and Dever plaintiffs in the landmark case that lasted from 1972 until 1993.

Cohen also maintained that the Romney administration, which announced last year that it intended to close Fernald and the five other remaining state facilities for the most profoundly retarded residents of the state, was engaging in a "land grab" for the property at the facilities.

Cohen made the statements during a press conference called to announce the filing Wednesday morning of a motion to seek U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro’s renewed oversight of the DMR, 11 years after the federal judge had disengaged from the case. Among the "systemic violations" of Tauro’s 1993 disengagement order that Cohen alleged in his motion on Wednesday were budget cuts and staffing reductions at Fernald and other state facilities that he alleged have brought about the return of conditions that led to the original 1972 lawsuits.

Those recent problems at Fernald, Cohen said, include infestations of mice and other vermin in many of the buildings and cottages on the Center’s grounds and staffing shortages so severe that residents have had to wait months in some cases for such essential items as diapers and padded helmets.

Diane Booher, whose two brothers have lived together at Fernald for 46 years, said during the news conference that the DMR improperly ignored her input earlier this year in the care plans for her brothers, including her recommendation that they continue to live together if they are transferred elsewhere. On transfer documents that she received from Fernald administrators, she said, there was no mention that her brothers are identical twins and that they have always lived together in the same room. "For Governor Romney, these people are just impediments to grabbing the land," Booher said.

George Mavridis, a COFAR Board member, noted that Fernald advocates have repeatedly proposed plans to allow the appropriate development of much of the Fernald site while keeping a portion of the campus as a permanent home for the current residents.

In response to a statement by DMR Commissioner Gerald Morrissey that Tauro’s motion was "premature," Cohen asked: "Is it premature to ask to get rid of the mice and to repair the buildings?…This [the plans to close Fernald] are a precursor to having the families of retarded [facility] residents living out of suitcases."

COFAR Executive Director Colleen Lutkevich said that COFAR supports Cohen’s motion to seek Tauro’s renewed oversight. "The closure of Fernald will not make DMR’s problems [in providing adequate care] go away," she said. "It will only make them worse."