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Families of Bellefontaine residents protest closing

February 28, 2005
By: Jeana Bruce
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Protest signs created a backdrop for those who oppose the impending closure of Bellefontaine Habilitation Center Monday.

Bellefontaine, home to over 300 mentally and physically disabled citizens is located in Saint Louis County. It would be closed by Gov. Matt Blunt's proposed budget cuts.

Family and friends of Bellefontaine residents and members of the staff held a press conference before a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee of Health, Mental Health and Social Services to protest the closing.

When Bellefontaine closes, residents will be moved to private housing, but familes of residents oppose this plan, saying that private facilities cannot provide the same specialized care.

Rep. Gina Walsh, D-St. Louis County, had tears in her eyes at the press conference.

"It would be very detrimental, people are going to die," she said. "Some of the clients have never been in any other environment."

Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, said he had similar concerns.

"This is a life or death issue for these individuals, they are scared, you can see it in their eyes," he said.

Mickey Slawson, president of the parent's association at Bellefontaine, said that it would be nice if Blunt would come and visit Bellefontaine.

Slawson's daughter, Carol, has lived there for 38 years of her 48. Carol has a mental capacity of a 3-year-old. Slawson said that the residents have everything they need at Bellefontaine including physical therapy, a pool, and cottages.

"They have everything they would have in an outside community, but it's there community and they are safe," Slawson said.

During the hearing, Walsh said Blunt's budget overestimates the money closing Bellefontaine will save the state.

Walsh testified to the committee that the costs of closing Bellefontaine would cost more than this year's budget of $12 million. Director Dorn Schuffman confirmed that later, but said the savings would come in the long term when the facility was completely closed.

"I think it remains to be seen whether there will be savings or not," he said. I think there will be a mix, a range, of contracts that we contract for individuals. Over time obviously there will be savings because we won't be maintaining that large campus."

Missouri Department of Mental Health Director Dorn Schuffman said that initially the closure will not save money. In time, however, with no cost of upkeep at Bellefontaine, the tides will turn.

Schuffman also said Bellefontaine would not be closing its doors this summer. He said it will take at least a year to find suitable options for all residents.

"We will only proceed using a responsible approach and a responsible time line," he said.