Historically, for people with developmental disabilities the only option for services was placement in a large, state-run facility. The typical advice for parents was to place their child in an institution, minimizing and even negating the importance of a family and community life. This was codified through various states’ laws.
In California in the 1950s, parental dissatisfaction led them to band together and to create their own services in the community, and to also agitate for social change through legislation. They found a sympathetic ear in Assemblyman Frank D. Lanterman. Significantly, the state was at a crossroads – increasing demand meant that either new institutions or new models of care needed to be built.
At the national level, the tenure of President John F. Kennedy – whose sister, Rose Marie, had an intellectual disability – saw additional progress. Kennedy convened the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation in 1961, which published a report the next year recommending “community-based care and a reduction of the number of people living in large, congregate facilities.” In 1963, the Mental Retardation Facilities and Construction Act was passed, providing funds for construction of community living facilities and marking the beginning of the (federal) turn away from institutional care.
Advocacy by Californian parents, meanwhile, prompted the 1964 creation of A Study Commission on Mental Retardation. Their findings showed over 13,000 people living in overcrowded state hospitals, with 3,000 more on waiting lists. In 1965, a report to the Governor and Legislature – “The Undeveloped Resource: A Plan for the Mentally Retarded of California” – called for the State to accept responsibility for persons with mental retardation prior to state hospital admission through a network of regional community-based agencies.
As a result, AB 691 (Waldie) was signed by Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, creating two pilot “regional centers,” contracted with the State Department of Public Health. The centers were tasked with calling attention to unmet needs of people with intellectual disabilities, facilitating service development, record maintenance, and both diagnosis and follow-up. They were also charged with assisting state hospitals, now called “developmental centers,” in moving their residents to the community.
Currently, the state’s three developmental centers (DCs) are being closed. When closure was formally proposed in the 2015 May Revision to the Governor’s Budget, the populations of each were: Sonoma DC, 405; Fairview DC, 278; and Porterville DC (General Treatment Area), 203.