Ryan Gabrielson, California Watch

California’s largest board-and-care center for the developmentally disabled will surrender more than $1 million a month in federal funding for failures to protect patients from abuse and provide quality medical care, state officials announced Friday.

Donna Lazzini embraces her son, Timothy Lazzini, a resident of the Sonoma Developmental Center who died in 2005. (Monica Lam/California Watch)
Donna Lazzini embraces her son, Timothy Lazzini, a resident of the Sonoma Developmental Center who died in 2005. (Monica Lam/California Watch)

In December, state regulators cited the Sonoma Developmental Center for numerous violations that put patients with cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities at risk of serious injury and death. Regulators have threatened to close a major portion of the century-old institution, now home to more than 500 patients.

The state Department of Developmental Services, which operates the institution, this week agreed not to seek reimbursement from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid for services provided at its most troubled residences. The state singled out four out of 10 residential units at the Sonoma facility.

“While there are deficiencies in the management, training, and staffing in the Sonoma (intermediate care) units generally, the problems are more significant in Corcoran, Lathrop, Bemis and Smith,” Terri Delgadillo, director of the state’s developmental services department, wrote to the federal agency Thursday.

The department “is committed to fixing the problems in all of the units, but addressing the problems in these four units will take additional time,” she said.

Roughly half of the center’s revenue comes from federal reimbursement. The loss of certification in Sonoma means California taxpayers will lose millions of dollars in federal funding that is dependent on assurances the facility is properly managed.

The action comes after a series of stories this year from California Watch documenting failures by the Office of Protective Services, an internal police force established specifically to protect and serve patients at these board-and-care centers. The police force has failed to perform basic tasks associated with crime investigations.

In particular, the Sonoma center had evidence of a dozen sexual assaults, but police investigators failed to order a single hospital-supervised examination for the alleged victims. Those reported assaults, all from the Corcoran unit, represent a third of the 36 documented cases of sexual abuse and molestation in the past four years at the state’s five developmental centers.

In a press release, the state Department of Public Health said it “will closely monitor each residential unit to ensure that all clients are protected from harm and the delivery of healthcare to this vulnerable population complies with both federal and state requirements.”

The state Department of Public Health regulates California’s five developmental centers, which house 1,600 patients in Sonoma, Tulare, Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties.

Sonoma has gone through two executive directors the past year; it is now looking for a permanent replacement. State officials have contracted with outside experts to upgrade care at the institution.

“The well-being of our residents at Sonoma Developmental Center is a top priority and the department has made critical improvements in the (intermediate care facility), but significant work still needs to be done,” Delgadillo said in a written statement Friday.

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