RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Another of Virginia’s institutions established decades ago for housing developmentally and intellectually disabled people has closed under an agreement with the federal government to move the residents into community settings.
The last resident moved out of the Southwestern Virginia Training Center in Carroll County on Aug. 21, said Maria Reppas, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. The closure marks another milestone in complying with a deal reached with the Department of Justice in 2012.
The settlement agreement came after a far-reaching DOJ investigation determined Virginia violated federal law by needlessly warehousing people in institutions. The probe found Virginia was one of only five states at the time that were operating multiple large institutions for disabled individuals. It also said most of those in state facilities had little or no interaction with those who are not disabled, lacked privacy, were denied freedoms such as choosing what to eat or watch on television and were often physically restrained.
The training center near Hillsville, about four hours southwest of Richmond, is Virginia’s third to close. A fourth is slated to shut down by 2020 while the state’s fifth is to remain open.
Some lawmakers and families of residents, who in some cases had lived in the centers for decades, have fought to keep them running. They argued in part that certain needs can’t be adequately served outside of the centers’ hospital-like settings and that moving the residents could create long travel times for families. But many other advocates for the disabled say less institutional environments provide a better quality of life.
Watching the training centers close has been difficult at times as residents made the transition, said Tonya Milling, executive director of The Arc of Virginia, a nonprofit that advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
But it’s “also heartening to see some of the really positive stories and outcomes people have had in their own lives” after moving into community settings, said Milling. Residents are gaining more autonomy over their day-to-day lives with the change, and some have even been able to find employment, she said.
Data provided by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services show most residents who have moved out of the state’s training centers so far have moved into group homes. Of the 141 people discharged from the Carroll County center, 124, or 88 percent, have remained within southwest Virginia, Reppas said.
Good Neighbor, a company that operates group homes across the state and offers other services for people with disabilities, recently opened seven such homes in southwest Virginia for individuals from the training center, and an eighth is under development.
Heath Pond, intellectual and development disabilities director for Good Neighbor, said the company’s homes are at least 2,500 square feet (230 square meters), with porches, living areas, and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. Staff members help residents get to doctor’s appointments and haircuts and go on social outings, such as attending football games, he said.
As residents began transitioning out of the training center, hundreds of workers have lost their jobs. That’s been tough on the local community, because the center was one of the county’s biggest employers, Carroll County Administrator Steve Truitt said.
The state has tried to help workers, hosting trainings, classes, job fairs, educational assistance and other opportunities over the past several years, Reppas said.
As for the facility itself, staff will remain on the grounds for “closeout and maintenance” for the rest of the fiscal year, and the land will go on the market, she said.
Charlotte Barkley, the stepmother of a 49-year-old nonverbal autistic man who lived in the training center, was among those fighting to keep it open.
Advocates hired an attorney and tried to intervene legally. They held a rally, collected signatures for petitions, met with local officials across the region, and collected resolutions from churches and civic organizations, said Barkley.
“We ran out of the runway,” she said.
Barkley said she still has serious concerns about the closure, especially about whether some former residents will face eviction from their new homes because of increased needs or behavioral issues.
But as for her stepson, who has since moved to a group home in Hillsville and is getting to go out to restaurants and parks and participate in other activities, things seem to be going well so far.
“He seems happy and settled in,” she said.