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Agnews in the Way

Tim and Judy Haller
Tim and Judy Haller share an embrace. Tim has lived at Agnews since nearly drowning at the age of 2.


When the buildings are razed, the land is cleared and the R&D parks occupy a perfect slice of the Golden Triangle, few will remember Agnews' residents.

Photographs and text by
Christopher Gardner

TIM HALLER EXEMPLIFIES the most fragile and vulnerable residents at Agnews Developmental Center. After nearly drowning when he was 2 years old, Haller lost most of his basic faculties. In the 12 years Tim has lived at the north San Jose facility under close medical attention, he has led a peaceful and safe existence. His mother, Judy, visits daily and takes Tim home on the weekends.

A single mom who works full time as a research biologist for a biotechnology company in Palo Alto, she survived a round of layoffs a few years back and sees irony in her son's present situation.

"I survived the downsizing; now, my son is not."

AFTER 107 YEARS of service, the Agnews Developmental Center where Haller lives is under immense pressure to close. And people like Haller will face difficult options: to move five hours away to a similar facility in Porterville or transfer into a privately operated community home.

On one side of the fight are the 585 residents who are mentally retarded and medically fragile, along with their families. On the other side, the state of California, Pete Wilson and captains of industry.

Across California, officials are closing developmental centers and sending patients to cheaper, privately operated community homes. Agnews, which sits in the middle of Silicon Valley's high-tech Golden Triangle, is worth hundreds of millions of dollars--but only if it is empty. Cisco Systems and Sun Microsystems are eager to buy the property where Agnews rests.

Developmental centers are the refuge of the state's most vulnerable citizens. The people who live in California's five such institutional settings are wholly unable to care for themselves. Agnews and similar institutions provide these people with the means to survive.

Centers like Agnews, however, are expensive to operate. The staff outnumbers the residents by a ratio of 2-to-1. Nurses and doctors must be on the premises 24 hours a day. Therapists, psychiatric technicians, groundskeepers and the building maintenance crew all add up to a considerable sum.

Because of these costs, and because of some families' desires to have options other than developmental centers, community care facilities have become the main service provider to the developmentally disabled. Community care units take many forms, but are typified by the group halfway house. Here the mentally disabled receive support, but they are supposed to achieve of level of independence. For some this transition is smooth; for others it is a death sentence.

The government downsizing has been marked by an increased mortality rate within the transferred population. A UC-Riverside study performed by Dr. David Strauss, using the state's own numbers, has found a 72 percent greater risk of premature death in the community care homes. "Mortality is an excellent measure of quality of care," Strauss said in an interview with KQED. "Where you find an excess of mortality, you're going to find an excess of hospitalization, illness and medical problems of all sorts."

Dennis Amundson, director of the state Department of Developmental Services, has known about these figures since July 1995, but is just now acknowledging the merits of Strauss' study. Until recently he attacked the study: In an interview with the Riverside Press-Enterprise newspaper, he accused the doctor of biased and skewed findings.

Last month, after years of dispute, the California Medical Association entered the fray, demanding a stop to care-home placements until a review can be completed. Amundson has questioned the constitutionality of stopping the transfers, but the 38,000-member AMA's call has given new hope to families of people who live in state-run developmental centers.

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Meet a few of Agnews' residents:

William Le Plante
Larry Morgan
Judy Lynn Hansen and Diane Siemons
Richelle Lewis

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AGNEWS, HOWEVER, faces a second and more daunting threat to survival: the pressure to develop its land. Its east campus contains 425 acres, 124 of which were recently sold to Cisco. The west campus contains 300 acres, 90 of which are slated for purchase by Sun Microsystems. The land is also home to the Police Athletic League, a BMX bicycle motor-cross track, a child-care center and a coalition for the homeless.

Additionally, all of Agnews' residents have been moved to the east campus in a consolidation effort that critics charge is an attempt to create the appearance that the west campus is surplus property. As evidence, they point to the fact that Agnews will soon lease 50,000 square feet of private property in Santa Clara for storage, maintenance and some work programs that could be housed in the property it already owns.

Agnews also will need to add eight classrooms and a multipurpose room to the east campus. Meanwhile, on the west campus, administrators will be tearing down historic buildings and sacrificing open space.

Gov. Pete Wilson, who discussed the closure of the west campus in a televised interview, describes these properties as surplus, having "no clear or present need." Cisco and Sun see these properties as ideal for their companies.

But Agnews parent Mick Morgan calls it corporate welfare. Alan Alexander, president of Save Agnews Now and also an Agnews parent, uses stronger language.

"They are stealing the land," he says. "It's prime land."

He pulls out a recent Mercury News interview with Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, who, when asked if Silicon Valley's business leaders have a responsibility to give back to the community, answered, "I don't know that I have a responsibility or an obligation that's written down. ... I make my own personal choices."

Alexander is furious over this answer. "They are on such a goddamned ego trip," he says. "Their responsibility is to get the hell out of there. ... Why are they in there in the first place? They are destroying something that has a valid reason for being, which has been there a hundred years."

When given another opportunity to respond to criticisms about displacement of the Agnews residents, William Agnello, Sun Microsystems vice president of real estate and the workplace, said, "That is a state issue, so we really have no comment." When pressed further, he responded, "We think it is obvious that it is a sensitive issue. But we are here because the state has already decided by law to sell the facility."

THERE ARE FIVE developmental centers in California to serve the state's most needy patients--the profoundly retarded and autistic, the medically fragile, people with severe behavioral problems and others who have suffered brain damage from accidents such as near-drownings. More than 4,000 people remain in these centers, and these individuals are those who were considered unsuitable for community centers during the institutional closures that began under the leadership of then-governor Ronald Reagan. Agnews houses 590, although at its peak it handled 4,600.

Some parents allege that the effort to close down these centers has been too aggressive.

"The Regional Center in Orange County three months ago pressured me to place Billy," mother Jackie Le Plante says. "The department continually contacts parents and conservators with possible placements into the community. You have to be hard-nosed in telling these CC [community care] homes no."

There also have been many allegations and one lawsuit charging the state-run centers with "client shopping." This is the practice of allowing privately run community care businesses to tour developmental centers and look for prospective clients--ones without strong family ties or who exhibit docile behavior. It is alleged that this activity is done without the knowledge of the families or conservators--a charge that Agnews' executive director, Kay Haralson, does not deny outright. "I've never observed one myself. ... I've had people tell me that they think it's occurring, and I know that people believe that it occurs, but I haven't actually seen it," Haralson says.

Haralson is the director who closed the historic Stockton Developmental Center in 1995. Although proud of her staff and facility, she would not choose to have her own child in Agnews.

When Haralson was asked where she would place a child of her own, if her child were in the condition of near-drowning victim Tim Haller, she has a one-word response: "Home." Later she said, "I wouldn't leave my kid to the state."

Haller's mother, Judy, angrily brands as "bullshit" the notion that someone is not a good parent if he or she chooses not to keep a child at home.

"I have him here at Agnews, and I go see him every day, but I also know that he needs the services that he has. If I had him at home, being a single parent, I don't think that I could keep my job and wake up every hour or two hours to turn him at night like I do when I bring him home on the weekend. Will society think any less of me? They won't, and I don't care what they think of me because he has what he needs."

Asked about Tim's future, Judy Haller chokes back tears and says, "When I'm gone, I just hope that he is happy, that people still hold him and touch him."

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From the April 24-30, 1997 issue of Metro

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