One year ago, “Black Monday” hit the families of Michener Centre residents like the many tons of bricks that make up the long-running facility in Red Deer for the developmentally disabled.
The provincial government’s announcement that the old institutional buildings at Michener would close, forcing about 125 residents out into community group homes and seniors facilities, came last March 11 in front of families who had been led to believe that their loved ones would live out their days in the facility where they have spent most of their lives. At the time, the province said it expected to have all moves completed by March 31, 2014.
“I think they honestly thought they could do this and we would just nod our head,” said Bill Lough, president of the Society of Parents and Friends of Michener Centre.
To date, nine residents have moved out of the centre and roughly 215 individuals remain — 104 of those residents will be able to stay in the 23 group homes already run by Michener Services. The new stated goal for completing all transitions is the end of 2014, but those overseeing the moves say ensuring the suitability of each individual placement takes primacy over any timeline target.
Opposition to the proposed closure has galvanized over the past year behind the parents’ society, which is made up of as many brothers and sisters of residents as parents. “Keep Michener open” has become a rallying cry at protests and bright blue signs emblazoned with the words have been firmly planted in lawns — or snowbanks — across the city since last April.
While a transition team has been meeting with families since shortly after the closure announcement, at least a dozen guardians have ceased having any dealings with the team. They are holding off in anticipation of a judicial review they hope will determine that the decision to close was not a well-thought out government policy but rather one made by a few individuals, and that because of that an injunction could be granted.
That review was to be held this week, but the parents group has pushed it back to November to allow more time to formulate its case.
Lough said he is optimistic a compromise can be reached and those who wish to keep their loved ones at Michener will be able to.
“It’s been a tough year for (families), but there’s still a lot of fight in them.”
Part of the reason so few moves have been made thus far is that there are not group home spaces available. Fifty-one new spaces are being created by community agencies in Central Alberta, but many of the new home builds have not yet commenced.
Parkland Community Living and Supports Society is putting the finishing touches on two of its new builds in West Park and expects three residents to move into each home soon. Chief operating officer Dan Verstraete said his agency has been very involved in learning everything about the charges it is about to take on.
“I think folks have had some very legitimate questions about how they’re going to maintain their community, how they’re going to maintain their connections. We’ve had lots of dialogue about that because that’s important . . . (Michener) has made sure we’re aware of those connections, who friends are. They’ve helped us get a handle on ‘Ok, what needs to be in place beyond the home in order for folks to succeed,’” he said.
The judicial review will be the second court challenge related to the closure edict. In December, Brian Reed sought the court’s opinion on whether he could block a move of his brother Bruce indefinitely as long as he, as an alternate guardian, did not believe an equal or better option was available.
Justice John Gill did not grant such power to Reed, but the wording of provincial guardianship law suggests that guardians could appeal to the courts again if they feel their wishes for loved ones are not being acted upon. According to an Alberta Union of Provincial Employees release issued Tuesday, the union has “secured legal services for residents and family members to help them apply for a legal injunction if they’re being pushed to move against their wishes.”
Reed and his parents — who hold full guardianship powers for Bruce — are among the many family members who remain resistant to the transitioning of residents. In a recent email to the transition team, Reed said he would be happy to have Bruce move into a new home in Calgary, but laid out a number of “non-negotiable conditions” for any new residence including that care staff have at least two years experience working with handicapped adults and that access to nursing or hospital care is available within a two-minute response time frame.
Edmonton MLA Naresh Bhardwaj inherited the associate ministership portfolio encompassing Michener Centre from Frank Oberle in a December cabinet shuffle. Bhardwaj, who taught high school in Red Deer for a time, visited Michener in mid-February but did not express any thoughts on the facility in a recent interview.
He said the transition process is “working extremely well” and that he has heard positive things from families involved.
“No one will be moved from Michener until an appropriate home has been found for them. That remains absolutely paramount for me,” said the associate minister.
Asked three times whether he sees room for a compromise, such as the one worked out between the AUPE and Red Deer North MLA Mary Anne Jablonski to keep Michener’s south site open, Bhardwaj would not address the topic, instead reiterating that the individuals at Michener are his main priority.
“It’s very very difficult for the families, so the transition team is working very very hard with the families to make sure that they’re comfortable and it’s absolutely important that the decisions are progressive and ultimately the whole objective in all of this is to improve the quality of life for all Albertans,” he said.
In its year of rallies, petitions, and advertising campaigns, the parents group has consistently regurgitated the pledge from the 2008 How We Move Ahead report that “nobody will be forced to leave Michener.” But Bhardwaj said institutions for the developmentally disabled have been closing the world over for years, with studies showing positive outcomes for individuals once in the community.
Last week’s provincial budget allocated increased funds for supports for the disabled in Alberta, and Bhardwaj said included in that is funding to allow for wage increases for group home workers, as the government had previously promised. The gap between wages for front-line workers at Michener and in the community has often been cited by those opposed to the closure, who argue that low wages disincentivize good caregivers from starting or staying in the field, leaving the disabled vulnerable.
The AUPE press release says 24,244 petition signatures have been gathered from people wishing for Michener to remain open, and over 4,000 letters have been sent to provincial politicians urging for a reversal. Six municipalities, along with a number of other groups, have also passed resolutions calling for Michener to remain open.