It's actually a good thing that Courtney Burke, commissioner of the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, slipped up Monday when radio host Susan Arbetter asked her, "What about Sunmount in Tupper Lake? Is that going to be closing?" Ms. Burke answered directly, "We are seeking to close all of our developmental centers by the end of 2014," and then described how that would happen.
When we and other local news agencies picked that up, many Tupper Lakers freaked out - justifiably so, since Sunmount employs 1,700 people in this economically depressed town of 6,000 people and in group homes around the Adirondacks.
We now know Ms. Burke had misspoken. On Wednesday, her spokesman Travis Proulx explained that "developmental center" is jargon for one kind of facility but that Sunmount is a "developmental disabilities services office" - not what she was talking about.
Listening to the interview online in the light of that knowledge, it still sounds like Ms. Burke was lumping Sunmount in with the centers that would close, but hey, she's new. Yeah, we hope she gets her facts straight about Sunmount in the future, but we're very glad to hear a head of this formerly secretive agency speak about it openly. We strongly hope she continues that.
Plus, her blunder produced an extraordinary piece of good news:
The state has no plan to close Sunmount, Mr. Proulx said.
That is exactly what Tupper Lakers have needed to hear for a long time, since a series of recent events has given them reason to be nervous:
-Gov. Andrew Cuomo visited Sunmount last year and told its staff, "If I was a state worker, I would be afraid of what is ahead."
-In his budget speech, Gov. Cuomo said New York will no longer keep abusive facilities open just to provide jobs. He was specifically talking about juvenile detention sites, but his broad language hinted that prisons and Sunmount might be vulnerable.
-He appointed Ms. Burke, a former advocate for disabled people, to head the OPWDD.
-A New York Times investigation published two weeks ago, which Ms. Burke cooperated with, chronicled abuses of residents at several of New York's nine large institutions that house developmentally disabled people. The reporter wrote that Sunmount has patterns of abuse embedded in its culture. He didn't give much evidence for that Sunmount claim, but a year-long investigation that Adirondack Life magazine published in 2004 was full of problems - for staff as well as inmates.
We don't doubt Sunmount staff members have abused residents. We've also heard plenty of stories about residents manipulating staff in grotesque ways. It's a tense situation there in the Center for Intensive Treatment, a secure facility for people accused of crimes who are deemed unfit, developmentally, to stand trial. Many of them are pedophiles. It isn't a prison, and they have more rights than prisoners do, but that makes the staff-resident relationship dicey.
Because the CIT has taken over most of Sunmount's main facility on state Route 3/30 in Tupper Lake - the developmentally disabled people without criminal involvement have mostly been moved into group homes - Sunmount can't be closed as easily as the "developmental centers." The state can't very well put CIT residents in group homes.
So now the state has clearly said it doesn't plan to close Sunmount, but not with much gusto. Still, we're encouraged by Commissioner Burke's foray into straight talk, however tentative. Now she and Gov. Cuomo owe the people of Tupper Lake more straight talk on the status of the institution that dominates their economy.