Gov. J.B. Pritzker discloses plan for troubled downstate mental health center that would allow more than half of its residents to move newstrendslive

SPRINGFIELD — Following reports of abuse, neglect and other mistreatment of residents at a downstate mental health center, Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday laid out his plan for improving conditions at the facility while also providing many residents an opportunity to move elsewhere.

Pritzker’s plan includes “repurposing” the Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center in Anna over a three-year period in partnership with the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, and “expanding” support for residents and their families “to pursue opportunities for community-based living while continuing to invest in provider capacity.”

The governor’s office didn’t exactly say how many residents would be moved from Choate, and the Illinois Department of Human Services, which manages Choate and other state-run treatment centers, didn’t immediately provide that information Wednesday morning.

But the governor’s office said most of the estimated 270 residents will have the opportunity to “transition into community-based settings” or other state-run facilities to receive care.

“The transformation at Choate moves Illinois in closer alignment with nationwide, research-informed best practices, advances the state’s commitment to equity and the civil rights of people with disabilities,” Pritzker’s office said in a statement. “It also reflects the state’s legal duty to ensure residents with disabilities have a full opportunity to live in the least restrictive environment of their choosing.”

An investigation last year by ProPublica, Capitol News Illinois and Lee Enterprises found that Illinois State Police had launched at least 40 criminal probes over the past decade into alleged employee misconduct at the Choate facility.

Employees there have been charged criminally more than a dozen times over the years on allegations that include everything from beating up residents to forcing a resident to drink a cup of hot sauce. Workers have also been cited for not reporting abuse and obstructing investigations and lying to state police.

The governor’s plan calls for “new safety enhancements” at not only Choate, but across all other state-run developmental centers. The plan also calls for the appointment of a new statewide chief resident safety officer.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois called Pritzker’s plan “a good first step” at improving conditions at Choate, but said it hopes it is an initial step toward “the ultimate closure” of all state-run developmental centers in Illinois.

“We fully support the smooth transitioning of people out of Choate who are living with developmental and intellectual disabilities. These individuals need to reside in the community, in the least restrictive setting possible,” Heidi Dalenberg, managing legal director for the ACLU of Illinois, said in a statement. “While this transition moves forward, we will continue to monitor efforts to ensure the ongoing safety of those who remain at the facility.”

One of Illinois’ largest state employee unions said it was extremely concerned about the fate of “residents and the employees who make Choate home for them” under Pritzker’s plan.

“AFSCME will work to protect the jobs of Choate’s dedicated and compassionate employees, and our union will continue our close alliance with the Friends of Choate family group to ensure that no resident is forced out of their home without their consent,” Roberta Lynch, executive director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, said in a statement.

Last month, Republicans in the General Assembly decried the Democratic governor’s handling of Choate given the systemic mistreatment of residents, and laid out their own plan to address the long-standing issues.

The GOP proposals ranged from additional surveillance cameras to adding employees who are better trained to work with the mentally and developmentally disabled residents of the facility. The lawmakers also wrote a letter to their cohorts in the Democratic supermajority calling for legislative committee hearings to discuss the problems.

In response to the GOP’s criticism, Pritzker’s office last month said his administration had taken steps to address the issues at Choate that include more training for staff, as well as an ongoing effort to install indoor and outdoor cameras, an increase of about a half dozen security workers and an “increased management presence in living areas and professional staff presence after hours,” among other steps.

Aside from saying the problems at Choate are long-standing and will take time to address, the Pritzker administration has laid blame on the previous Republican administration of former Gov. Bruce Rauner for budget cuts to social services.

The situation at Choate is one of several issues the Pritzker administration has faced over its handling of state social service agencies.

An auditor general’s report last year blamed Pritzker’s Public Health Department for failing to adequately respond to a COVID-19 outbreak at a state home for veterans in LaSalle that led to the deaths of 36 residents. And child-welfare advocates have repeatedly criticized the administration’s oversight of the Department of Children and Family Services, which has come under fire for failing to find appropriate placements for children.

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