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Murray Center’s closing leaves more than 250 developmentally disabled residents with tough choice

Photo courtesy of Karen Kelly
Photo courtesy of Karen Kelly

Just like any toddler, Karen Kelly’s son can throw a powerful temper tantrum. The only difference is Eric can break someone’s arm.

Eric Schutzenhofer is a 39-year-old, 6-foot-5-inch, 250-pound severely autistic man who functions as a toddler. Because of the care he’s received, he hasn’t needed frequent restraints for autistic meltdowns since moving into Murray Developmental Center 13 years ago.

His mother, a behavioral health nurse for 40 years, doesn’t know what she’ll do when Murray closes in October as part of state budget cuts.

The center’s closing will leave three choices for roughly 260 developmentally disabled people to go: group homes, nursing homes or family.

The state is looking for people to become providers for group homes that will house up to eight developmentally disabled residents. The staff must be over 16-years-old with an eighth-grade reading level and will receive training, according to the Department of Human Services.

The group homes don’t have daily nurses, occupational therapists or psychologists. Many of them have two to four beds in a room, said Kelly.

The state made this decision with budget – not quality of life – in mind she said.

“Yeah, it’s cheaper. It’s a cheaper form of care because it’s a lesser form of care,” said Kelly.

Kelly said she is concerned for residents of Murray who are in worse condition than her son. Rita Winkeler, president of the Murray Parents Association, also has a son in Murray. The 29-year-old functions at a 9-month-old level and wears a diaper.

The Department of Human Services hasn’t taken the disabled into account, said Winkeler, whose son needs a full-time nurse.

“I know the state is in a bad place financially, but closing Murray would make such a small dent,” she said.

The state has a more than $30 billion budget for operational expenses ranging from buying paper clips to paying worker salaries to covering annual costs of running places like Murray. It costs roughly $36 million a year to operate Murray, according to the Department of Human Services.

In addition to closing downstate Jacksonville and Murray, the state closed two mental health centers in 2012 – Singer Mental Health Center in Rockford and Southwest suburban Tinley Park Mental Health Center.

Kevin Casey, director of developmental disabilities for the Department of Human Services, could not be reached to answer questions about the Murray closing.

In an effort to postpone the closure, Rep. Charlie Meier (R-Okawville) sponsored a bill that would require the Department of Human Services to track the progress of former residents of the Jacksonville Developmental Center that closed in 2012.

The bill, one of his first since joining the Illinois House last month, calls for a six-month waiting period while the events of the Jacksonville center closure are studied before other developmental facilities can be closed.

In addition to the delay, the bill, filed Jan. 9, attempts to provide more accountability for the state’s actions.

“We want to be able to follow the money and know what’s going on there,” said Meier. “We just want to know [residents] aren’t going to be treated like cattle.”

As a Democrat from Chicago who has served in the House for close to 30 years, Rep. Mary Flowers, chair of the Health Care Availability Access Committee, is the only hope of getting the bill to the floor and bringing the issue out of downstate, said Meier.

“If we can’t open the eyes of people in Chicago, we’ve got no chance,” said Meier.

Flowers said closing facilities like Murray goes back to what President Barack Obama said in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address.

Asking the disabled to shoulder the deficit of this state and not ask anything of the wealthiest is not right, said Flowers.

Without Meier’s Jacksonville center bill, there is no way to know if closing developmental facilities is saving the state any money because no one is tracking where residents were moved, or how much those facilities cost the state, she said.

Murray Parents Association is one of the lead plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed in February against the Department of Human Services.

Downstate in O’Fallon, Kelly talked about her son’s need for around-the-clock nursing.

She paused, and told the story of an autistic boy from Calumet City who was shot to death by police last year in his parent’s home. He was having a tantrum, not unlike the ones her son has, and slashed a police officer with a kitchen knife. The officer shot him in the head.

“That’s what worries me,” she said. “I worry about my son’s safety.”

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