Asked and answered – somewhat.
A Feb. 15 column exploring the future of Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center in downstate Anna pondered a question commonly overlooked when demanding actions from government officials: then what?
As always, visit propublica.org/series/culture-of-cruelty to plumb the depths of reporting on abuse and conditions at Choate, a partnership involving Lee Enterprises and Capitol News Illinois. But even when rooted in sincere altruism, it’s irresponsible to call for the state to close such a facility without at least acknowledging the repercussions of such a drastic move, let alone honestly engaging in long-term solutions.
The issue moved from hypothetical to reality last week when the state announced plans to transfer 123 residents elsewhere in the state care system. Although officials insisted Choate isn’t closing, favoring the terms “repurposing and restructuring,” there was immediate, expected pushback from people facing the reality of how these decisions affect their loved ones.
Reporters Beth Hundsdorfer, of CNI, and Molly Parker, of Lee, interviewed a woman who moved her family from Georgia to Illinois in 1990 to get her son into a place like Choate. He’s lived there for 30-plus years and now faces an uncertain future.
“We are devastated and so disappointed. It seems to us that DHS and the governor’s office are pushing our loved ones out of their homes of many, many years,” the woman said. “They can’t be moved like puzzle pieces. … They’re human beings. I think we need to put the ‘human’ back into the Department of Human Services.”
State Sen. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, said the transferred residents will be “two hours away, at a minimum,” from Choate. Clearly that’s a disruption to the family members who regularly visit loved ones. But consider the emails such family members sent me to call Choate “hell on Earth” and insist “no one should have to endure any more time in that place.”
Labor unions seeking to protect almost 600 jobs at Choate also pushed back. The Illinois Nurses Association formally requested to negotiate regarding the issue and had a spokesman attribute problems to “a few bad apples.” But even if it’s possible to accept only a handful of people could be responsible for more than 1,500 reported incidents of abuse and neglect over the decade ending in 2021, it’s difficult to tolerate the suggestion any connected organization remain untouched while trying to reach solutions.
There is a plan. Whether it works will take years to ascertain. Consequences, intended and otherwise, must be factored in such assessments. The status quo was untenable, so officials left “rock” in favor of “hard place.” It’s not heroic, just doing the job, but guarded grace is warranted in the early days of this difficult transition.