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Lawmakers weigh MDC cuts

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Prosecutors recently filed felony charges against a Montana Developmental Center psychiatric aide who admitted to smashing a client’s head into a wall, marking the latest in a string of problems at the state-run facility responsible for housing intellectually disabled adults.

The Jefferson County Attorney’s Office alleges that MDC staffer Sheldon Moffett “charged” at a client on Sept. 27, causing him to sustain a gash that required five staples to close.

Since December, the Montana Department of Justice has documented 10 incidents of physical abuse by MDC staff against clients. According to information compiled by Disability Rights Montana, which is empowered by federal law to scrutinize MDC and receives DOJ investigatory findings, other episodes include a staffer throwing a client to the ground, causing him to break his clavicle, and an MDC employee backhanding a client in the genitals while playing a game called “nut checking.”

Such findings are prompting state lawmakers to reconsider funding the facility, which costs some $15 million annually to house roughly 50 clients.

“We have consistently been hearing about not just a one-time offense, but ongoing issues,” says Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, who also chairs the Montana Legislative Finance Committee. “Why would we continue to invest funding into a facility that does not seem to be able to address this at all?”

In 2013, the legislature considered phasing out MDC. Disability Rights Montana and others, including Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, argued that MDC’s funding would be better utilized by providing community services. Caferro and others pointed to the facility’s ongoing problems as well as a national trend toward deinstitutionalization.

While that effort failed, Jones says the recent complaints leave him receptive to the idea of shifting resources. “I’m going to become increasingly more supportive of other alternatives,” he says.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services oversees MDC. In response to questions about abuse, DPHHS Director Richard Opper said in a written statement, “MDC has made numerous changes to improve client safety ... Abuse of our clients will not be tolerated.”

While Moffett is no longer employed by MDC, DPHHS declined to specify what sanctions, if any, are faced by other staffers found by the DOJ to have abused clients.

The Montana Legislative Finance Committee is slated to address MDC on Dec. 2.

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