For months, officials at California's Sonoma Developmental Center were unable to explain the frequent bruises one patient's family members noticed on the body of their severely disabled adult daughter.
The woman, who had lived at the institution for years, complained she'd been touched and bruised by a caregiver. Center officials said their Office of Protective Services investigated the matter but could not confirm the patient's allegations.
The following year, evidence of abuse became irrefutable. The patient turned up pregnant. In 2007 she gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Her story was the centerpiece of a series of articles by investigative reporter Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch.
The series, "Broken Shield," documents 36 allegations of rape and molestation of disabled patients at the state's board and care facilities that the centers' critics say police either ignored or mishandled. Despite credible evidence of crimes, California Watch reports that developmental center police "failed to order a single hospital-supervised rape examination for any of the alleged victims between 2009 and 2012."
In the wake of the California Watch stories, and following its own surprise visits to the facility, the California Department of Public Health this week yanked Sonoma Developmental Center's license to operate. Regulators cited unspecified physical conditions at Sonoma that posed "an immediate threat to patient health and safety."
The center, which serves 500 severely disabled patients, remains open pending appeal. Center officials say they are working to correct the deficiencies.
As Gabrielson has written, the patients at the state's development centers are "the most vulnerable of the vulnerable." They suffer from cerebral palsy and severe mental retardation. Some have IQs in the single digits. Many cannot speak. They are helpless and easily exploitable.
In response to the California Watch stories, the governor signed a bill into law in September that requires law enforcement officials at developmental centers to refer all allegations of sexual assault to outside police agencies. Center law enforcement officials are being trained how to recognize signs of sexual assault, and a high-ranking CHP officer with investigative experience has been assigned to the Sonoma Center.
Something more is needed greater transparency. The Center for Investigative Reporting, California Watch's parent organization, sued last year to force the developmental centers to provide uncensored copies of abuse reports. Even though it's clear from the case files hospital officials produced that a violation occurred, the reports turned over were so heavily redacted that a judge who reviewed them said the public "cannot ascertain how the violation occurred, whether it has been corrected or whether it is likely to be repeated."
The state has appealed the judge's order to turn over uncensored copies. Why? If it truly cares about correcting problems and stopping abuses at development centers, the Brown administration should drop the appeal and turn over the documents.
The patients at these hospitals are helpless, physically and mentally frail and often alone, without family or friends. If the institution of government charged with protecting them fails, the consequences are heartbreaking. Developmental centers need more scrutiny, not less.
The Brown administration should release the files.