Montana Politics Steve Bullock

Governor Bullock Should Veto SB411

Following the temper tantrum of the right wing who blocked desperately needed infrastructure across the state, much of the work of the 2015 legislative session is over. Among the unresolved issues is the fate of SB 411, which would close the Montana Developmental Center in Boulder by 2017. Governor Bullock should veto the bill, because there are simply too many unanswered questions about client care if the MDC were to shut down so precipitously. There’s little doubt Montana can do more for clients in need of the services provided at the MDC, but to close the facility in two years is tantamount to calling for abandoning and imprisoning some who desperately need the services only a facility like MDC can provide.

The close, conflicting, and repeated votes to pass and kill SB 411 demonstrate that the bill simply isn’t read to be made into law. Watching the testimony of parents, mental health care providers, and workers at the MDC was heart wrenching, but the bill that left the legislature simply should not be signed into law. I don’t think there is a single person who’s taken the lead on either side of this bill who is motivated by anything but the best interest of the clients currently at MDC and I have a great deal of respect for people on both sides of the issue, but the often-hyperbolic rhetoric of those calling for the closure of MDC obscures a far more complex reality for clients were the MDC to close.

My argument does not suggest that I take the concerns about abuse at the MDC lightly. The Department of Public Health and Human Services does need to investigate its policies that may not have done enough to prevent cases of abuse and neglect. But it’s incredibly naïve to believe that these problems are unique to MDC. Clients who will be placed in community treatment will still suffer from serious disabilities that can, unfortunately, lead to abuse both by clients and perpetrated on them. Carol Dailey, whose son was at both MDC and a series of community placements, described the latter:

His service provider, I was told, referred to Shawn as his “money maker.”  Even though that community provider could not care for him, had no programming suitable for him, and could not manage his behavior, they would not consider referring him elsewhere.  His escalating violent behaviors were managed by giving him more and more drugs until he was left in his room in a drugged stupor with no activities. His health was deteriorating; he was clearly spiraling downward in his physical condition, yet they insisted on keeping him, because he “made them money.”

The crucial difference, though, is that data collection—used to perhaps unfairly demonize MDC—will no longer be centralized or as reliable.

That’s not to suggest that most, if even many, community placements are bad for clients, but it does put to rout the somewhat specious claims of SB 411 proponents who suggest that abuse is unique to MDC. This is a complex issue, and pretending that MDC is some villainous organization bent on abuse of patients while community placements never have a dark side doesn’t serve logic, policy making, or patients. The very data opponents of MDC used—and occasionally misused—to demonize the facility will be far less available in an atomized system of community placements.

There are serious social justice issues with closing MDC, too. A former student and current dedicated public defender, Chris Abbott, testified that closing MDC would necessitate imprisoning some people with diminished capacity, because community-based services either could or would not take them. Back in February, he wrote:

…abandoning the only facility of last resort for the developmentally disabled is short-sighted. Without MDC, some will fall through the cracks. They may be shunted onto the prison system and be subjected to the brutality they should not have to suffer. They may be left adrift in the community, unable to care for themselves. Some who are at MDC because of criminal convictions might be at risk of victimizing others without a higher level of care.

The bill also leaves serious unanswered questions. Lowell Bartels, the current chaplain at MDC, and someone who has devoted much of his life to working with people with developmental delays, explained one of the most significant in his must-read piece. He writes:

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?

Closing MDC will reduce the knowledge we have about the problems of abuse, ensure that some clients end up in prison, and close the facility that the bill itself recognizes some clients need. And proponents simply never had compelling responses to these serious issues with the bill.

It’s also telling that some Republicans who have hardly proven themselves to be friends of the disabled supported the bill. It would be tempting to believe that Art Wittich and the no government crew cast their votes to close MDC out of some concern for patients, but it’s far more likely that they saw this as a conservative trifecta: reducing government social services, cutting the budget, and busting unions. Those “benefits” might have induced some anti-government Republican voters to support the bill, but it has to make you wonder what priorities really drove their support.

This is undoubtedly a complex decision for the governor, but the uncertainty of client placement and the likelihood that people who need serious intervention for critical mental health and developmental issues will end up abandoned or in prisons necessitates a veto of this bill. There’s more work to be done here—and this bill simply moves too fast without enough answers.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.


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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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