News Analysis

HARTFORD, Conn. – The outside thermometer said 90, but the temperature was more than sizzling last Thursday when the State Department of Mental Retardation (DMR) refused to allow 20 family members of group home residents to enter the premises.

Furious about an auction to the private sector of the first 30 of 410 state-run group homes, and worried about the fate of their loved ones, the family members traveled to the capital city from all corners of the state. Their hopes to meet with Commissioner Peter O’Meara were immediately dashed. The group, largely senior citizens, was greeted instead by state police, armed guards shouting “SOS!” and news that the entire building was on “lockdown.”

The parents, siblings and guardians gathered with members of New England Health Care Union District 1199 to voice their outrage. Under the group home privatization plan, union members who have been caregivers for many years to the same individuals would be yanked from their jobs in favor of nonunion temporary workers.

“I’m afraid to even tell my son about this,” said one parent, recalling past poor treatment in private institutions. “He has a mental capacity of three, and he will not understand. He’s in his 50s now, and it’s getting harder.”

Rose Tiernan, who served as spokeswoman for the group, has a 52-year-old brother in a group home in eastern Connecticut. “These residents have come to know the group home workers as family,” she said. “They receive excellent care. Privatization is unacceptable.”

The crisis with DMR is only one of many unfolding as a result of the continued refusal of Republican Governor John Rowland to agree to a fair budget for the state and a fair contract for state workers. Rowland claims privatization will save money, and is needed because so many state workers took early retirement.

Both the early retirement package and the layoff of 3,000 state workers are being challenged by SEBAC, the coalition of all state worker unions.

Like most states, Connecticut faces a significant budget deficit. If the income of the richest five percent of the population were taxed an additional two percent, the budget deficit could be resolved, vital programs could be restored, and all 3,000 state workers laid off in the beginning of the year could be rehired.

Offers by SEBAC to defer raises due to the budget crisis have been dismissed by Rowland, who insists on far deeper concessions. SEBAC has joined with One Connecticut, a coalition of over 100 advocacy and religious organizations to demand a “fair share budget” through rallies, sit-ins, vigils and lobbying efforts.

The governor has twice vetoed the Democratic-controlled State Legislature’s budget proposals, although they included deep sacrifices by children, families and state workers, with only minor increases in taxes for corporations and wealthy individuals.

While Rowland would like to be known as a moderate Republican, he has adopted the radical right-wing policy of slashing and privatizing government programs and destroying unions. He is using the budget crisis to advance these aims, putting not only the people of the state, but its whole future stability at risk.

In addition to DMR group homes, Rowland is attempting to sell off public transportation, and send 2,000 prisoners to out-of-state privatized facilities in Virginia, where they will in all practicality be cut off from family visits. Family members of incarcerated prisoners and the prison guards’ union, AFSCME, are both publicly opposing any out-of-state moves.

“Privatization isn’t the answer for everything,” one mother of a mentally retarded son told the World outside the DMR office. “Privatization is the answer for the profiteers. What about the trauma to all the handicapped and to the staff?”

As the budget debate continued at the state capitol, DMR parents circulated thousands of flyers, postcards and petitions at churches, supermarkets and community events across the state with the message, “Stop putting the developmentally disabled on the auction block.”

It remains to be seen how long the State Legislature will hold firm against the governor’s tactics. If they are listening to the public, they will refuse to give in. Policies which bankrupt government and leave the most vulnerable in the lurch must be rejected in Connecticut, as across the country. We can afford no less.

The author can be reached at joelle.fishman@pobox.com

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