The state, which wants to close its Warren G. Murray Developmental Center in Centralia, is paying a university $400,000 to study how former residents of the now-closed Jacksonville Developmental Center like their new homes.
But a state lawmaker says the study is worthless because its lead author has a bias against state institutions for the developmentally disabled.
Preliminary results from the study, being conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago, show that almost 90 percent of guardians believe their loved ones are better off -- or just as happy -- in their new homes, compared to Jacksonville.
One of the lead researchers for the study has been Amie Lulinski, a member of the UIC staff who also has served for years on the board of directors of Arc of Illinois. Arc of Illinois has been a proponent of closing Murray Center, and pushes for placement of individuals with developmental disabilities into community-based settings, typically group homes.
"We all know where Arc stands on this," said state Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, who is trying to keep Murray Center open. "Arc wants every facility closed."
The university's Institute on Disability and Human Development is conducting the study. Lulinski has worked there as a senior research specialist. But in June, Arc of Illinois announced that she would be leaving the university and going to work for Arc, on its national policy team.
"I'm sure it's just a coincidence," Meier said. "But it's a pretty strange coincidence, isn't it?"
Tony Paulauski, the director of Arc of Illinois, said the research and its findings are solid.
"The people that are opposed to closing Murray, they'll use every excuse in the book," Paulauski said. "This research confirms the same findings from every other institutional closing in the last 25-30 year. The findings are generally identical."
The research, Paulauski said, shows that with every closure of an institution for the developmentally disabled, there initially is dissatisfaction among the residents and guardians, but later there's "a high percentage of satisfaction."
Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health, which awarded the no-bid contract for the study, said the university's department is internationally recognized in the field of developmental disabilities. Arnold said the researcher's involvement with Arc is not a problem.
"Just because you have an interest in something doesn't mean it impacts how you do your job," Arnold said. "Her opinions are not necessarily going to be indicative of the results of that study."
The researcher's ties to the advocacy group caught the attention of Chicago attorney William Choslovsky. He represented people with developmental disabilities in a landmark class-action lawsuit involving privately-operated institutions. Choslovsky's sister resides at Misericordia, a 600-resident institution in Chicago that is operated by nuns but funded in part by the state.
Choslovsky said it's troubling that the study has been led by someone with ties to "the very group that wants to close not just Murray but all state-operated developmental centers."
Choslovsky sent emails in March to the head of UIC's Institute on Disability and Human Development, asking her if there appeared to be a conflict of interest.
"She acknowledged that perhaps a disclosure is required," Choslovsky said. "That is the most that she would concede."
Choslovsky stopped short of saying the report is worthless, but said it's highly questionable, because of the researcher's ties to Arc as well as the way the study was conducted. "The methodology is, at a minimum, extremely flawed," he said.
The preliminary report is based on surveys completed by 65 guardians of Jacksonville residents. The Jacksonville center had 178 residents. Fourteen of the actual former residents were surveyed.
Almost all of the former residents were placed into group homes. Most were homes with 2-4 residents, though some have up to 16 residents.
Of the guardians surveyed, 87 percent said their wards are doing "significantly better," "somewhat better" or "same" in their new homes. Also, 92 percent of the guardians said they were "very satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" with their wards' new living situations.
Januari Smith, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, which also was involved in the study, said such studies are commonly conducted after the closing of large facilities for the developmentally disabled.
"From the preliminary report, UIC found significant aspects of the process that went well, as well as specific areas where we can enhance and improve. We'll use the data gathered by UIC as a learning tool in the future," Smith said.
The contract for the two-year study calls for the university to evaluate the closure of both Jacksonville's center and Murray Center. Another portion of the contract calls for an evaluation of people who used to reside in privately-operated institutions.
Arnold said the Department of Public Health did not have to seek bids for the work because contracts between state governmental bodies are exempt from bid-procurement rules.
Gov. Pat Quinn says closing Murray Center and sending its residents to group homes will save the state money and give the residents a better quality of life.
As of January, Murray Center had about 225 residents remaining, and about 530 employees.