One night in January 2020, a man at Rainier School, a state-run center for developmentally disabled people, left his cottage without the knowledge of workers there and walked away into the dark, never to be seen again.
That tragedy is one of the latest examples documented in a report by the advocacy group Disability Rights Washington (DRW) as it again calls on the state to shutter its residential habilitation centers.
Titled “Shut Them Down,” the report is the latest in a yearslong campaign by DRW seeking to close the Rainier School in Buckley, Pierce County, Fircrest School in Shoreline and Lakeland Village, in Medical Lake, Spokane County.
The facilities have struggled for years with safety issues and reported deaths and serious accidents. Federal regulators in 2019 decertified part of Rainier School because of problems, leading state officials to transfer scores of residents out into the community.
Beth Leonard, a staff attorney with DRW and co-author of the latest report, called the facilities “historic institutions that were created to segregate people with developmental disabilities.”
“We have the capability to serve people in the communities … so people can live in neighborhoods and near their families,” she said.
But the push to close the facilities have come as families of some developmentally disabled people believe those institutions remain the safest place for their loved ones. That includes Sabrina Whaley, the parent and guardian of Sergei Whaley-Taub, a longtime resident of the Fircrest School who has experienced a lifetime of multiple disabilities.
She said she and others believe that larger institutions are the best way to make sure people get the daily help they need, such as preparing food, managing their medicine, moving around, and making sure they don’t harm themselves or wander off.
“For the greatest safety, and for his greatest well-being, that’s the type of setting that he needs,” said Whaley of her son. “And it’s where he thrives.”
Now, after years of mediated talks between the state and elected officials, advocacy groups and people within the community of disabled people, lawmakers are again proposing a plan to close most of the facilities.
The recommendations come out of a work group mediated by the Ruckelshaus Center in late 2019 and call for gradually replacing the large residential facilities with housing in communities across Washington.
It also recommends building a new skilled nursing unit at Fircrest School, to replace an aging facility there, in a move that would keep part of that campus open.
Lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee are considering both of those moves this legislative session.
Senate Bill 5268, sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser D-Des Moines, would lay the foundation for a transition away from the residential centers.
It would require the state to forecast and then budget for the number of people requesting supported-living services. That would allow state officials to plan for supported-living homes in communities around the state.
“It is a slow process,” Keiser said. “You just don’t turn out people who have lived there for 40 years.”
Co-sponsored by GOP Senate Minority Leader John Braun, of Centralia, the bill also has the support of the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), which oversees the facilities. On Friday, lawmakers on the Senate Committee on Health & Long Term Care voted to advance the proposal.
Asked about the DRW report and the incidents it documents, a spokesperson for DSHS cited the agency’s current work of shifting more residents into the community.
“Since 2014, more than 600 clients have chosen to move out of (the facilities) and into the community through our Roads to Community Living program,” wrote spokesperson Lisa Copeland in an email.
Some have been outspoken in opposing the closure of the facilities, saying they have provided a good home to family members with severe disabilities.
One of those is Whaley, whose son Whaley-Taub has spent years living at Fircrest School.
Now 37, Whaley-Taub came to Fircrest about a dozen years ago after going through nearly two dozen caregivers in the community over a six-month period, Whaley said.
At Fircrest, “he did relax, he started sleeping through the night, he started eating better,” Whaley said. “He starting healing better.”
But the new DRW report documents other recent problems.
Just days before the disappearance of the Rainier School man in 2020, another man left that facility site.
“An off-duty staff member returning from lunch happened to spot him walking in heavy rain, without a coat, nearly a mile from campus,” according to the report.
In 2019, a Fircrest resident reported being hit by a staff worker, according to the report, and the resident told at least four other employees about the incident. But, “No one at Fircrest reported the incident to law enforcement or to the State Complaint Resolution Unit, in violation of mandatory reporting requirements.”
Legislators and Inslee are also considering approximately $120 million for a new 120-bed skilled nursing-care unit at Fircrest School. Inslee included that funding in his new proposed capital-construction budget.
Keiser said the state would always have a need for skilled services for aging individuals with disabilities who “need 24/7 nursing care.”
Meanwhile, moving people into community homes wouldn’t necessarily solve the problems reported at the larger facilities. Keiser suggested that stricter reporting and oversight might mean that problems at places like Rainier School are just more visible than elsewhere.
And, “There is no way to absolutely eliminate all personal risk to vulnerable people,” Keiser added.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the cost a of new proposed skilled-nursing unit at Fircrest School. The cost would be approximately $120 million, not $110 million.