News & Events

Fairness at Fernald

Kudos to the Boston Globe for their Sunday Editorial in support of the residents and their families of the Fernald Developmental Center in Waltham in their struggle to prevent Governor Romney and his administration from continuing plans to gut services and eventually close all facilities for the profoundly and severely disabled who depend on these facilities for their survival.

Boston Globe – EDITORIAL
Fairness at Fernald
November 14, 2004

ONE OF Mitt Romney’s first official actions as governor in early 2003 was to announce the closing of the Fernald Developmental Center in Waltham, home to more than 200 of the most severely retarded handicapped people in the state. Since then, 39 have left Fernald for facilities operated by the state or private vendors.

But 252 remain, and the families of many of them don’t want their loved ones—some of whom have been at the center for decades—to be forced to move. They also object to what they see as staff cutbacks at Fernald and other such facilities, which serve about 1,200 residents. The state’s long-term plan is to close or greatly cut back services at all of them.

The families’ struggle took them into federal court last week, where they sued to have US District Court Judge Joseph Tauro reestablish the authority over state care for the mentally retarded that he exercised for two decades, ending in 1993. The families and guardians want Tauro to order the state to keep Fernald open. Unless the state Department of Mental Retardation agrees to stop trying to force residents and their families to accept inappropriate placements away from Fernald, the judge should stand ready to step back in.

The reigning code in treatment of the mentally retarded is that they should be treated in the "least restrictive" settings possible. For most, that goal makes sense. But, as Beryl Cohen, attorney for the suing families and guardians, notes, 90 percent of Fernald’s residents are severely or profoundly retarded. Their average age is 59, and many suffer as well from other handicaps, chronic diseases, or both.

State Department of Mental Retardation Commissioner Gerald Morrissey recognizes that it would make no sense to move out all of Fernald’s residents, and he says the department plans to keep a skilled nursing facility there. The families would like to see that willingness to keep some services at Fernald expanded to include facilities for as many of the 252 as wish to remain.

The families’ organization, the Fernald League, is receptive to plans to carve off for development or other purposes much of the land on which the center sits. The campus, with easy access to Route 128, contains more than 160 acres. The league has said it would be content with a "postage-stamp" site for the buildings required to house those Fernald residents resistant to moving.

Fernald, whose first building dated to 1848, is the oldest state center for the retarded in the United States. This country’s—and this state’s—history of treating the retarded has been mixed. It will not be improved by insistence on an approach to treatment that slights families’ and residents’ yearning for stability and familiarity as well as quality.