Murray Center trial: Is state 'dead wrong' to close it or catching up with the times?

News-DemocratJanuary 8, 2014 

Supporters made "Save Murray Center" signs during the fight to keep the facility open.


— The director of a day-activity center attended by more than 100 Murray Center residents testified Wednesday the state is "dead wrong" in deciding to close the center.

But Kevin Casey, the head of the state office that oversees care for people with developmental disabilities, testified Illinois is "significantly behind the rest of the country" in shifting those individuals from institutions to community-based group homes.

Greg Shaver, the director of the nonprofit Kaskaskia Workshop, testified that, in his opinion, Centralia-based Murray is the best or second-best of the state's institutions for people with developmental disabilities.

"The state just got it dead wrong," Shaver testified.

More than 100 Murray residents go to Kaskaskia Workshop for day programs.

Sherri Thornton-Pierce, an attorney for the plaintiffs who are trying to keep Murray open, asked Shaver about the trend of placing people with developmental disabilities into community-based group homes instead of institutions. Shaver, a psychologist, recalled how he was involved decades ago in the case of a 51-year-old woman who was institutionalized in the Springfield area because when the woman was 18, she enjoyed going out to dance -- which was viewed by the woman's mother as a mental defect.

"Trends come, and thank God, some of them go," Shaver said.

Under cross-examination, Shaver was questioned by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Ioppolo about the involvement that Shaver himself, and his management company, have in the operation of some group homes and community-based care centers in the Centralia area.

Shaver admitted that he considered developing a plan to open more group homes if Murray closes, but the Murray Parent Association asked him to "hold off" on the plan. Shaver said the parent group's president told him "they've got a different plan."

The state is trying to show that Murray parents and other supporters of the center are throwing up roadblocks to other living options for Murray residents. For example, many parents and guardians have refused to grant the state access to the residents' medical files, thwarting attempts to conduct assessments on what types of residential options would be appropriate for each person.

Ioppolo brought up one email written by Shaver, in which he said the state will have "major problems" if all of the parents and guardians of the roughly 240 Murray residents stick together and refuse to cooperate in any transfer process.

Ioppolo asked if Kaskaskia Workshop stands to take a financial hit if Murray closes and its residents end up scattered. Kaskaskia Workshop received about $2.84 million from the state last year for providing its services.

Shaver said a financial impact to Kaskaskia is possible, but he believes closing Murray would be a "huge disservice" to downstate Illinois, because the state would be left with only one other state-operated developmental institution south of Kankakee.

Casey, director of the Illinois Department of Human Services' Division of Developmental Disabilities, testified that only Texas and California have more people in mental institutions than Illinois. He said there were about 270,000 people nationwide in mental institutions in the mid-1960s, compared to about 27,000 today.

"The professional research is overwhelming ... that people do better in community programs," Casey testified.

Casey said even though the state in most cases prefers 2- or 4-bedroom group homes, and is trying to move up to 600 people out of state institutions, the state will help guardians place their loved ones in other state-operated institutions if that's what the guardians and residents want.

"I've said that again and again and again, and I repeat it here," Casey said.

He agreed that Illinois has a "secondary motive" in moving people from institutions to group homes.

"It's no secret to anybody that the state of Illinois has a serious financial problem," Casey said.

"Really?" replied Assistant Attorney General Marni Malowitz, drawing chuckles.

"If we don't save a dime, we don't save a dime, but our expectation is that we'll save some money here," Casey said.

Casey said his office has about 25,000 Illinoisans receiving services, and roughly the same number on a waiting list.

Rick Starr, the acting director of Murray Center, was called to testify by the plaintiff attorneys, as an adverse witness. He testified he previously served as assistant director, and was given a roughly 25 percent raise for taking on the responsibility of serving as a liaison between Murray residents' guardians and a contractor hired to conduct assessments on Murray residents for transfer purposes.

Starr admitted he was unaware that one woman is both an employee of the contractor and a founder of a group home.

"Would that strike you as odd?" asked plaintiff attorney Daniel Saeedi.

"I don't know," Starr replied.

Wednesday marked the second day of the proceeding in federal court in Chicago. The judge has scheduled the proceeding to last three days, but will accept written arguments in the days following. He'll likely issue a decision in a few weeks.

The plaintiffs, led by the Murray Parent Association, argue that the rights of Murray Center residents will be violated if the state closes Murray and other state-operated institutions for the developmentally disabled. The plaintiffs say the state wants to put all people with developmental disabilities into group homes which are privately operated but publicly financed. But some people have disabilities that are so profound, they can't be cared for in a group home, the plaintiffs argue.

The state says community-based group homes are a more modern way to care for most people with developmental disabilities, and that most people prefer residing in a home rather than an institution. The state argues that it has no plans to close all seven of its institutions, but that it's a state decision on whether to operate the institutions, not a federal court's.

In addition, the state says placement in a group home instead of an institution saves the state about $100,000 per year, allowing Illinois to spread its limited resources among a growing number of developmentally disabled who need services.

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at or 239-2511.

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at or 239-2511.

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