State facilities for the disabled called antiquated, but some rely on them

For decades, Virginia's training centers have housed hundreds of people with severe developmental disabilities. Recently, debates over the effectiveness of these centers have broken out as other states have closed the doors on similar facilities, while Virginia has expanded the Southeastern Virginia Training facility in Chesapeake.
By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010

CHESAPEAKE, VA. -- On a barren tract that backs up to Interstate 64, past a street sign that says "Dead End," sits the entrance to a home that no parent would eagerly choose for a son or daughter.

The Southeastern Virginia Training Center houses some of the state's most profoundly disabled people, those who for decades had no option but to live in institutions.

Across the country, states have been closing such places for years, moving people with mental disabilities into community homes and out of the institutions that defined care of the developmentally disabled for much of the 20th century.

Yet the training centers, seen by some families as the only alternative for loved ones who have known little else, endure in Virginia, one of 11 states that have yet to close any of their institutions.

Southeastern, which houses 133 people ages 20 to 90, was going to be the first. But in a sign that Virginia's path to deinstitutionalization will continue to be slow, the state broke ground last month on a $23.7 million project to replace much of Southeastern's 36-year-old campus with a smaller, but still sizable, compound.

The fight to rebuild Southeastern has played out in painful, personal ways for families who have embraced the training center and families who want no part of it, all of them caught in a system with too many antiquated facilities and too little money for community care.

"We should close them all," said Charles Hall, a local mental health official in the Hampton Roads area. "But Virginia is very predictably conservative when it comes to things like this."

The state's pace suits some parents just fine. Gene Sivertson leads the Parents and Friends of Southeastern Virginia Training Center, and for years he and his wife, Ann Marie, have been among its most ardent defenders.

The couple would not speak on the record about their efforts to keep Southeastern open. But in a short essay submitted this year to an advisory committee on the training center's future, Ann Marie Sivertson argued that community care shouldn't be the only option available to families such as hers.

"Realistically," she wrote, "those of us who are blessed with abilities are tasked with the responsibility of providing care for those who cannot care for themselves. For SEVTC families, this Training Center is their 'Choice' for such care."

Barbara Kimble said she understands the sentiments of parents such as Sivertson -- even if she doesn't agree with them.

"I don't blame them," said Kimble, whose 25-year-old son, Michael Ward, is disabled and cannot speak. "If that's where my son was, if that's where he had been from an early age, I would be afraid to take him out."

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