- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A committee appointed to help guide the closure of Montana’s center for the developmentally disabled in Boulder on Monday heard the troubled history and ongoing woes at the facility, which has 25 vacant staff positions and is working to regain its license.

The 15-member Montana Developmental Center transition planning committee held the first of what will be monthly meetings at the Capitol over the next 18 months. The committee, which includes state lawmakers, parents of center residents and a county commissioner that serves Boulder, among others, listened to state experts and took public comment on determining the best way to house and treat people who have severe intellectual disabilities, mental health issues and personality disorders.

Rebecca de Camara, developmental services division administrator for the Department of Public Health and Human Services, told members the facility has struggled since it opened in the 1890s. Its population peaked in 1965 when it had more than 1,000 residents and has decreased in the following years in the movement to do away with institutions as care facilities.

“The problems that we’re facing today are problems that have plagued the institution throughout history,” she said, citing the abuse of clients and staff as some of the biggest challenges.

De Camara said some of the problems with keeping people safe were exacerbated when lawmakers cut the operating budget in 2013. Some staff was eliminated, and some residents now have roommates, which she said is not ideal with a population that can be aggressive.

The committee will have perhaps its greatest challenge in finding community-based settings for the 53 people who currently live at the center, which is meant to be a short-term living situation for people to learn skills and get treatment, she said. About half the people living there are ready to transition now, but no facility has offered to take them.

“You have your work cut out for you - absolutely,” de Camara told the committee. “It’s no simple solution.”

Lawmakers struggled over the future of the facility known for cases of abuse and neglect before passing a bill in April to shutter it.

Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, sponsored the bill to close the facility and said Monday that the committee is really charged with creating a new system focusing on the safety and civil rights of people with disabilities living in the least restrictive environments.

“They’re not here to continue the existing system - they can’t keep people safe,” Caferro said. “They’re here to develop and design a new system.”

A plan must be in place by the end of the 2017 legislative session for people who can be transitioned to a community setting as well as for those who require ongoing secure facilities.

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