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Closing Bremerton's Morgan Center would add heartbreak to heartbreak

 Joy Cage, right, and Diane Rauschenberg, left, rally on behalf of Frances Hadden Morgan Center on Kitsap Way Saturday. Both women work for the Rainier School, a residence for developmentally disabled adults in Buckley, also on the state’s chopping block. - Lynsi Burton/staff photo
Joy Cage, right, and Diane Rauschenberg, left, rally on behalf of Frances Hadden Morgan Center on Kitsap Way Saturday. Both women work for the Rainier School, a residence for developmentally disabled adults in Buckley, also on the state’s chopping block.
— image credit: Lynsi Burton/staff photo

As a severely autistic child with no concept of fear or danger, Doug Hall would go missing from home or school, prompting calls to the police and local search and rescue missions.

He required 24-hour supervision, so his mother, Arcella Hall, of Camano Island, would spend her time watching her son at home, often at the expense of her other two children.

After failed efforts to hire baby-sitters and live-in caretakers and put him in a group home, Arcella Hall didn’t know where to turn.

About 20 years ago, Arcella Hall and her husband placed Doug Hall at the Frances Haddon Morgan Center in Bremerton.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Arcella Hall said, describing the choice she faced between taking care of Doug Hall and her other two children. “It takes pretty much total sacrifice and the other kids have the rights to parents, too.”

Doug Hall, now 36, has received the attention and care required by his severe autism and other health issues, she said, as well as space to safely move around without the prospect of another dangerous escape.

But with Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget-cutting proposal to close the Frances Haddon Morgan Center, along with another residential habilitation center, Arcella Hall, like other residents’ parents, is worried about her son’s safety.

Again, 20 years later, she doesn’t know where to turn.

“What I’m afraid of is that if he goes into a less secure setting, he’ll be able to escape again and get hit by a car or drowned. He needs to be in a safe environment,” she said, noting she doesn’t know where her son would go if the center closes. “I know that his dad and I can’t take care of him. We can’t handle him.”

Gregoire’s proposal would help close a $2.8 billion budget gap through the summer of 2011. Although lawmakers will decide the fate of the center when they approve a budget next month, some in Olympia are working on plans for alternatives to residential habilitation centers like Frances Haddon Morgan, which has 54 residents.

But parents of Morgan Center residents are quick to point out that moving residents out of places like the Morgan Center and into community care settings may actually cost more than keeping the institutions open.

Indeed, setting up new community housing options while operating the Morgan Center in its final years will cost the state almost $1 million from 2010 to 2011, said Eric Mandt from Gregoire’s budget office. But Mandt said the office projects that in 2012, closing the Morgan Center will save the state $1.3 million, and through 2019 the state will see an annual savings of $2.1 million. A Senate bill calls for the Morgan Center’s closure by the end of 2012.

State Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, said such decisions aren’t just about money but about doing the right thing.

“I am hopeful that we are going to be able to keep that center open,” Seaquist said.

State Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, is working with other legislators to push state institutions into what are called “Centers of Excellence,” a concept used by other states where institutions not only house residents in need of special care, but provide a wide range of community services such as adult day health services, medical and dental care for dependents living in their homes or in the community, counseling and support for families and training for caregivers and teachers.

That way, the same set of resources could be extended to more people, Rolfes said.

“You just have a bigger impact on a broader set of people in the community,” she said. “Let’s make this work for more people.”

The concept is an attempt to satisfy those who want to keep the institutions open as well as those who think developmentally disabled people should stay in their home communities, Rolfes said, who added she opposes closing the center if other services are not put into place.

“I don’t believe we have the capacity right now in Kitsap County to provide safe, medically-appropriate care for the people who are living in Frances Haddon Morgan,” she said.

The “Centers of Excellence” is more in line with the philosophy of Sue Elliott, executive director of Arc of Washington, who believes state resources for the developmentally disabled need to reach more people.

Elliott is an advocate of community-based care, where those who are developmentally disabled can live close to their families and go to work. About half of Frances Haddon Morgan residents go off-campus during the day to work, she said, demonstrating that residents are just like those now in community care.

“It’s not like they need 24-hour care in there,” Elliott said. “We believe that you can provide the support in the community. There’s no magic about the four walls.”

Ross and Susan Retter assert the opposite, saying the residents at the Morgan Center are among the people with the highest needs. They don’t just worry about their son’s safety if the center closes ‚Äî they also worry about the safety of the people around him.

The Retters were two of a large group of protestors who rallied on behalf of the center’s residents and employees on Saturday, waving signs and chanting under heavy rain at the corner of Kitsap Way and Adele Avenue.

Ross and Susan Retter’s son Richard became violent with his family and peers.

“He got so that he was very dangerous around our home and he was hurting our other children,” Ross Retter said, fighting tears.

Richard Retter underwent 11 different placements, including an adult psychiatric ward, where he was straight-jacketed and his feet were tethered for three months while he awaited his next placement. Since then, a judge ordered him to stay at the Morgan Center when he was 13.

“He’s finally really gotten to the point where he has a real life,” Ross Retter said, adding that he and his wife moved from Mill Creek to Port Ludlow in 2008 to be near their son. “He’s happy, he’s healthy - you can’t believe how happy he is.”

Richard Retter, now 32, does janitorial work at the center and delivers mail.

If the Morgan Center closes and Richard Retter is placed in community care, he might pose a danger to the public and be jailed for his behavior, Ross Retter said.

But another concern of Frances Haddon advocates is that the process itself of transitioning residents out of the center can have a traumatic effect.

Mildred Bynes-Turner, a Morgan Center attendant counselor who attended Saturday’s protest, said that consistency is extremely important to autistic people.

“A lot of the residents I work with, this is the only home they’ve had. We’re like family to them,” she said, adding that a move could provoke behavior problems.

Closing the center would put residents at risk and pile more heartbreak on their families, said Bill Looney, a Silverdale resident whose daughter has lived at the center since 1978.

“If we can’t do the right thing for people who can’t help themselves, then we lose our own humanity,” he said.

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