The Senate Ways and Means Committee held a hearing Wednesday on four different bills related to the state’s institutions for people with developmental disabilities.
In Washington, the state refers to them as Residential Habilitation Centers (RHCs). Two of the proposals call for the downsizing or closure of one of the RHCs – the Fircrest School in Shoreline. The measures are controversial as family members with loved ones living at Fircrest and the unions representing the state employees who work at the facility are staunchly against the idea.
Fircrest is home to approximately 220 residents with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and autism. The school sits on 86 wooded acres, considered a very valuable piece of property. Much of it is currently undeveloped.
“When closed, the idea is to lease or sell the land (at Fircrest) and make sure the money (goes to) make enhancements in the DD (developmentally disabled) community,” said Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, who sponsored the bill to close Fircrest by the year 2022. “It’s about quality of life, fullness of life.”
In 2015 and 2016 the KING 5 Investigators produced several reports in a series “Last of the Institutions” that exposed that Washington lags behind much of the nation in continuing to operate institutions such as Fircrest.
While Washington has four facilities open, several other states, including Oregon, have closed all of their institutions or have plans to do so. California recently enacted a plan to shut down their last three institutions over the next five years.
States are moving away from segregating those with disabilities as the U.S. Dept. of Justice and courts across the country have ruled this is an unlawful form of discrimination. In addition, decades of science shows people do better after they move out of institutions and into homes in regular neighborhoods with proper supports. People who have moved out of institutions and into the community report more freedoms and self-direction such as what time they get up, what they eat, where they go, and who they spend time with.
“I lived in an RHC for the first five years of my life. I didn’t get to see family,” said Ivanova Smith, who testified in support of Rossi’s bill on behalf of the advocacy group, People First. “We want our own personal freedoms, we want to go to work…we can’t do that in an institution.”
Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, sponsored another bill that downsizes Fircrest by the year 2022. Her proposal calls for a new nursing home to be located at Fircrest for those with the most significant disabilities and a clinic to serve the population.
“The department (DSHS) must take steps necessary to consolidate other buildings and ensure residents are provided the opportunity to remain at Fircrest School or move into the community in state-operated living arrangements,” wrote Keiser in SSB 5594.
Several people testified against the bill to close Fircrest. The main concerns were the lack of appropriate housing and staffing in the community and the vulnerability of the residents who remain at RHCs such as Fircrest.
“I am totally opposed to (the) closure bill,” said Julianne Moore of the Washington Federation of State Employees who also works at the RHC, the Yakima Valley School. “These people are people and we treat them less than animals. They are not just a dollar sign…They are not vegetables to be moved around.”
Money is a key consideration in the downsizing or closure of Fircrest. According to the state, it would cost $5 million to $7.5 million per year to close Fircrest from years 2017 to 2021. Beginning in 2022, closure would begin to save the state between $2.5 million to $5 million a year.
The next step is for the Senate Ways and Means Committee to vote on the bills.
Fircrest School was established in 1959 within a facility that was a Naval Hospital and later became a Tuberculosis Sanitarium.
Besides Fircrest, the state operates three other institutions, The Rainier School in Buckley, Lakeland Village outside of Spokane, and the Yakima Valley School in Selah.