KALAMAZOO — The federally-mandated deinstitutionalization of developmentally disabled individuals in the 1970s led to the creation of group homes throughout the United States and launched nonprofits such as Residential Opportunities Inc. to manage them.
On Jan. 1, ROI entered its 40th year in operation and its CEO Scott Schrum said while the organization has much to celebrate, it also had plenty of concerns, particularly about the future of the mental health system in Michigan and the individuals it serves.
“There’s a fairly strong movement within government to privatize the mental health system,” Schrum said. “Gov. Snyder’s budget had Section 298, which was just a paragraph, and it called for handing over management of the state’s mental health system to private insurance companies. Private insurers will be responsible for managing dollars.”
The state’s current mental health budget is $2.6 billion. Provisions in the plan include the long-term goal of privatizing behavioral health services for 350,000 Michigan residents with mental illness, substance abuse disorders or intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Schrum said the insurers don’t have any history of managing people with developmental disabilities, plus they will need to generate a profit.
“The mental health system doesn’t operate as a for-profit model,” he said.
While Schrum and his colleagues throughout the state continue to closely monitor the future of Michigan’s mental health system, ROI’s leadership also is dealing with a shortage of qualified staff to work with the residents of its group homes.
In 2017, leaders of mental health service provider organizations asked the Michigan legislature for a $3 per hour pay increase for direct care staff. Instead, they were given an hourly increase of 50 cents.
“Our biggest issue as an organization is the staffing shortage and you sort of see it in every industry nowadays,” Schrum said. “Sectors such as retail have started to increase wages, but our funding ultimately comes from the state and they aren’t increasing funding to attract the quantity and quality of staff that we need to have.”
ROI currently operates 18 group homes in Kalamazoo County and serves about 600 individuals, including people in group homes and those receiving supported living services. In addition, the organization has a payee program that manages clients’ money for them and operates a program for individuals on the autism spectrum. ROI also offers an affordable housing program for low-income residents in the county.
The nonprofit took steps to diversify its funding stream in response to the ongoing stagnation in state funding and the emerging needs of its client base. In 1996, the organization developed its first affordable rental housing unit for individuals with disabilities. In 2000, ROI merged with Kalamazoo Homestead Inc., which had hired ROI in 1997 to manage its properties.
Funding from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority pays for the majority of the affordable housing initiative. Schrum said clients of ROI’s supported living program were using two-thirds of their monthly Social Security payments for housing and had been living in extreme poverty.
“One of the ways we’ve evolved over years is to help people have affordable places to live,” Schrum said.
The program is open to anyone who qualifies, not just ROI clients.
“Our goal is to have people with disabilities living with people with no disabilities,” Schrum said.
As part of its ongoing mission to support developmentally disabled individuals, ROI opened the Great Lakes Center for Autism Treatment and Research in Portage in 2012. The Center functions as an intensive residential and outpatient treatment program for children and adolescents on the autism spectrum. Three years later, it opened the Joanne and John Lawrence Autism Center in Galesburg, an outpatient program.
The residential program accepts children from throughout Michigan and is licensed to serve a maximum of 12 children at any given time. It currently has a waiting list.
Schrum said a combination of Community Mental Health and private insurance funding covers the cost of the autism programs. He credits Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who has a daughter on the autism spectrum, with championing this effort.
“When these children are worked with from the time of diagnosis in a 20-40 hour per week program for three years, about half of them will be able to enter a school system with no additional support needed,” Schrum said. “Although it’s really expensive upfront, in the long run, it ends up saving money.”
According to Schrum, Richard Prangley is an example of what success looks like when a person diagnosed with developmental disabilities receives the necessary treatment and the tools to live a productive and fulfilling life. Prangley, 68, who lives in Lansing, was among thousands of Michigan residents who benefited from deinstitutionalization.
Prangley’s parents, who lived in Grand Rapids, turned him over at age 6 to the former Coldwater State Home and Training School, where he remained there for 15 years. He was born prematurely and deemed hyperactive and slow to learn.
“I was there for 15 years and never got to go home,” Prangley said over a meal at a local restaurant. “I was being abused by the state and the staff in Coldwater. They kept me on high doses of medication to keep me quiet and we were forced to lay on hard wooden benches all day.”
After his release, he lived in a group home in Grand Rapids. In 1980 he took a job with the State of Michigan where his responsibilities included mail delivery and furniture moving. The job was made possible through the efforts of former Congressman Nick Smith, and required a special classification for Prangley.
During his 30-year career, he also became an outspoken advocate for the rights of developmentally disabled individuals. He spoke to groups throughout the United States, was the subject of a book about his life, provided testimony that led to the closure of the Coldwater facility, and worked with four Michigan governors on mental health issues.
“I wanted to remove the stigma with mental illness and developmental disabilities,” Prangley said. “I want to get rid of the idea people have that it’s not OK to be different.”