Lowell Bartels: Closing MDC would be irresponsible

April 8, 2015 / Comments (0)


[Independent Record photo]

Lowell Bartels, a committed life-time advocate for our disabled citizens, wrote the following guest opinion. Today HB 411, the ill-advised bill to close MDC, will be heard in committee.

Closing MDC would be fiscally irresponsible – Lowell Bartels


For nearly 40 years, I have witnessed the changes at the Montana Developmental Center from a hospital/dormitory-like institution where the disabled were isolated from communities to its closure when the developmentally disabled were moved into communities. Those who had difficulty living in communities were sent to prison. Then, the state reopened the MDC as a collection of group homes and rehabilitation workshops that prepare individuals to re-enter communities.

For more than six of the past 25 years, I have volunteered as a chaplain at MDC and have visited the campus on a weekly basis. Because of this connection, I am personally acquainted with many of the clients and staff members. I can speak as a person who has no financial interest in the outcome of Senate Bill 411.

The MDC is staffed by many sincere, hard-working people who are dedicated to helping some of Montana’s most difficult developmentally disabled clients to return to a community. These individual workers are highly trained in de-escalation, medicine, treatment and the specialized care the clients need. Will a new provider pay for new employees to be trained this way or source it out to the lowest bidder? These clients are remanded to the MDC by the courts because they are not able to live without some kind of treatment for their behaviors. The staff works out individualized treatment programs with the courts and the progress of each individual is reviewed by the courts. There are many success stories. Numerous families tell the story of the progress made by family members at MDC. The rehabilitation program is working; there are currently 22 clients ready to be returned to group homes, but no homes will take them because of the level of treatment they require.

There have been incidents when individual employees have not performed properly, but the entire staff should not be blamed for these incidents. There is often more to the story than is readily visible. The clients are sent to MDC as a result of some incident. Their behavior does not change immediately. They need rehabilitation to stop their sometimes aggressive and sometimes self-destructive behaviors. The staff is trained to rehabilitate them, but incidents do occur. Sometimes other clients are hurt, sometimes the staff is hurt. The more troubled the population, the greater the number of incidents. These incidents occur in private community group homes, with over 50 incidents so far this year in the private sector, but due to privacy rights, they are not made known to the public, as all incidents at MDC are.

There are a number of problems with SB411. First, it calls for building new group homes when Montana taxpayers have already built group homes in Boulder. Also, it does not address providing all the specialized facilities that are in place for the rehabilitation of the developmentally disabled including a workshop, a school for personal care, a large fenced campus including a walking path, a swimming pool and a gymnasium. Replicating all these services would be enormously expensive.

The bill proposes leaving a few of the most difficult individuals at the MDC. It also mentions that clients who are deemed unsuitable by the providers could be returned. If the MDC is closed, where would they be returned to? What will happen to the next clients who need the services of MDC? Where will the court have to send them? Do they belong in the prison system again?

It is not fiscally responsible to rebuild and restaff another set of facilities to rehabilitate the people who are currently being served at MDC.

[Lowell Bartels is Interim Chaplain at MDC]

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