People First of Oregon Salem Chapter       

Fairview: The Closing Chapter


Fairview closes its doors

FINAL MOMENTS: One of the last two remaining residents of the Fairview Training Center takes a final look at the view near the water tower moments before boarding a van that would take him to a state-run group home.

Treatment philosophy has changed
Small group homes have replaced large institutions like Fairview

The final two residents left Fairview Training Center on Thursday, ending the Salem landmark's 92-year run as Oregon's central home for people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities.

It was a quiet finish.  The former institutional giant, once home to 3,000 people, emptied without fanfare.

"It's a very weird place now," Superintendent John Cooper said.  "When I first came to Fairview, it was downright crowded.  Now, it really feels like a ghost town.  You can walk clear across campus without seeing another person."

Hundreds of former Fairview employees said goodbye to the facility during recent years.  Many laid-off employees transferred to other state jobs.  Cooper soon will shift into an administrative post overseeing state-operated group homes.


Fairview employees Annette Henry (left) and Karen Myrick hug as Star Thorson, also an employee watches.  

Henry was about to board a van to accompany the last two Fairview residents to their group home.

A skeleton crew will continue working at Fairview through March, moving furniture and performing other shutdown tasks.  After that, 10 employees will remain to patrol the grounds and operate the facility's boiler-fired heating system

Moving day for the last residents came earlier than planned.  "We're about four months ahead of the schedule we projected four years ago," James Toews, assistant administrator of the state Office Developmental Disability Services, told legislators in a report Thursday.

State plans call for selling the 275-acre campus. 

No sale is expected in the near future, however, because the city of Salem and the state must resolve zoning issues, figure out who's going to pay for infrastructure improvements, and find developers.  That could take years.

Fairview's aging buildings will be maintained until the property is sold.  The projected cost for mothballing the empty institution: $1.5 million  a year.

Heating dozens of buildings to prevent deterioration and keeping security watch on the property account for most of the cost, officials said.  "The sooner the process goes through, the cheaper for the state," Cooper said.

Fairview was enormously expensive to operate.  Coasts soared during the past 15 years while the federal government mandated staffing increases, expanded treatment programs and upgraded facilities.  The annual cost of caring for each resident climbed in 1985-87 to $114 million in 1997-99, even though the resident population fell from about 1,200 people to fewer than 200 during that same time period.  The federal government supplied 60 percent -of Fairview's funding.

'State-officials decided to abandon Fairview for two fundamental reasons: sheltering people with developmental disabilities in smaller community homes is cheaper, and most mental health professionals believe it's more humane.

Developmental disability is a catchall term for a physical or mental impairment often mental retardation  that becomes apparent in childhood and limits a person's ability to learn or care for himself.

Living in smaller group homes and apartments has become the norm for people with developmental disabilities, even those unable to speak or care for themselves in the simplest of ways.

"Just  as almost any of us would to live in a small home or apartment with a limited number of individual as opposed to  large dormitory-style buildings, the for people with same holds true for people with disabilities," Toews said.

 During the past three decades, former Fairview residents have moved into government-subsidized group homes, foster homes and apartments throughout the state.

Today, there are more than 500 community homes in Oregon for people with developmental disabilities, including more than 90 in Marion County.  In all, they shelter more than 2,780 people.

 Fairview's population peaked during the 1960's when more than 3,000 people were crammed into dormitories. Many residents received little or no treatment.  Reformers called for reducing the population.

Large reductions in Fairview's population began in the 1970s, when state funding was provided for community based programs.  The exodus accelerated during the 1980s when Fairview came under file from federal regulators.  In 1987, the Justice Department sued Fairview for alleged civil lights abuses arising from unsafe conditions and lack of treatment.

Fairview's population fell from 1,200 in 1985 to 100 last summer to the last two residents Thursday. The systematic phaseout coincided with a national movement to shrink mental institutions. 

During the past 30 years, the number of institutionalized Americans with developmental disabilities has dropped from  almost 200,000 to fewer than 50,000.  The change came to be summed up in a single big word: deinstitutionalization.

The Eastern Oregon Training Center in Pendleton now operates as Oregon's lone institution for people with developmental disabilities.  It houses about 80 people.  State mental health Officials said there are no immediate plans to close EOTC.

Many advocates for people with developmental disabilities supported the push to close Fairview.  Some considered Fairview a throwback to an era when mentally retarded people  were marooned in institutions for life.

 Other advocates said the institution devoured mental health budgets while thousands of Oregonians with developmental abilities remained on waiting lists for services

"We're an very excited," said  Paula Blue, executive director Of The Are of Oregon, an advocacy group. "There's nothing good to be said about institutional care.  There's nothing good to be said about living  in an institution away from your community.  That's what we do to prisoners."

 But other people, mainly parents whose children lived at Fairview for much of their lives, contend that Oregon officials are g a big mistake in doing away with the he residential center.

"We don't have a safety net now, said Bud Breithaupt, whose daughter, Margaret, was transferred from Fairview into a Portland group home nearly a year ago.

"Everybody is kind of out here in the community on their own now.  Save for the good graces of some competent providers, and unfortunately they're at a minimum, you don't have much latitude if you get into trouble."

Mental health planners admit that serious problems plague the group home system, including relatively low wages for caregivers and high rates of staff turnover. Even so they contend that most former Fairview residents lead better lives outside the institution.

"Everyone isn't better off; there certainly are exceptions," Toews said.  "By and large, though, they're better off because they live in much smaller settings with less noise, less distractions, and smaller numbers of staff to deal with.  They're better off because they have more access to the community." 


Fairview staff employee Star Thorson blows a kiss to one of the last two residents of Fairview as he boards a van that will take him to a state-rum group home.

This article by Alan Gustafson was published by the Salem Statesman Journal, February 26, 2000