Sunmount respite questions remain unanswered

TUPPER LAKE – Another resident here is concerned about the fate of the Sunmount respite homes, and the state isn’t providing answers.

Respite care provides a place to bring someone with a condition that might otherwise require them to live in an institution full time. It’s often daytime care, but it can include overnights as well.

People using the services of those homes, located at 18 and 19 Hamilton Ave. in Tupper Lake, were surprised when they received letters from the state Office for People With Development Disabilities in May, informing them that respite care would be transitioned from state run to nonprofit care providers.

A date for the closure was not included in the letter, but two people who received the letter – Peggy Ratigan and Adrienne Pickard – both said they’ve heard from various OPWDD representatives that it’s Sept. 1.

Two months later, and the details of the transition are still unclear.

Last month, the Enterprise contacted local representatives of Sunmount and OPWDD, who referred all questions to the OPWDD Director of Communications Jennifer O’Sullivan. She would only respond via email.

Most of O’Sullivan’s email responses to the Enterprise’s questions were taken directly from the letter Ratigan and Pickard received. She ignored questions regarding the closure date for the homes, a date an RFP would be issued, whether there are enough facilities in the area to provide respite services and the potential economic impact of the closures.

The Enterprise followed up with another email last week, again requesting those specifics, and it was ignored.

Former Sunmount employee Lee Robert offered an explanation.

“You won’t get anything from the people in Albany, because they don’t have a clue,” Robert said. “The majority of those people are administrators, and that’s different than technicians, and it’s the technicians who should be making up these policies, because administrators are just looking to cut money.”

Robert worked for Sunmount for 35 years, and spent the last 19 of those years supervising and training staff for the “Crisis Intervention Team.” He sympathized with the state’s decision to save money – caring for people is expensive – but said he is concerned about how the transition would be made.

The crisis team initially visited people on site and attempted to assess difficult situations involving individuals with developmental disabilities. Sometimes that meant taking the individual to a doctor or giving the family members time to step away. The goal was always to allow the individual to remain at home.

“Sometimes, these people aren’t the best communicators, so the problem might just be they have a tummy ache and need to go to the doctor,” Robert said. “We’d keep narrowing down and narrowing down until we figured out what was going on.”

Eventually, the state decided to open the two respite homes on Hamilton Avenue, near the Sunmount campus. Robert said he can’t remember what year the homes opened, but he does remember what it took to get them ready for consumers because he was an integral part of that six-month process.

The buildings had to meet strict guidelines for safety and handicap accessibility, and staff had to be trained to handle a wide range of situations and behaviors.

“It took a long time to get them up and running because the basic structure of the house has to meet certain criteria,” Robert said. “It has to be livable, of course, but it has also to meet certain fire and safety regulations. There has to be evacuation egress. There’s got to be a fire alarm system. Hot water can’t go above a certain temperature. Those kinds of things.”

Robert said he’s worried that a couple of months isn’t enough time for an organization taking on respite services to meet those requirements. He’s also worried about the time it takes to train staff to meet the varied needs of the consumers.

Sometimes, individuals require full-time, one-on-one supervision. Others might need verbal instruction, hands-on care or medication, which requires special training to administer.

“I retired in 2005, but when I retired we did not turn a person away because of challenging behaviors,” Robert said. “By challenging behaviors, I mean are they assaultive, injurious, do they have Pica behavior (eating objects that aren’t food)? We didn’t turn people away for that. Typically, if you have a son or a daughter with challenging behaviors, you need a break, and that’s what we provided.”

Beyond ensuring that the new respite homes are ready before the Hamilton Avenue homes close, Robert said he’s concerned that some who need respite services will no longer have access to them.

“My concern is not that it’s going to go to a state-run respite program to a private, my concern is this: The agency that’s going to pick this up, are they going to serve the entire catchment area?” Robert asked. “Right now Sunmount serves the six northern counties, and that’s a huge area. Is there going to be one in each county, or is one going to serve the entire catchment area? What is the state going to do to help these families?”