There’s a tug-o-war going on in Southern Illinois over how the state cares for its neediest citizens. It’s playing out along a ribbon of small towns. But the outcome will determine the future for many Illinois citizens with disabilities.
State Representative Charlie Meier is a farmer by birth - he tends 14 hundred acres with just one hired hand.
MEIER: We’re in Okawville, Illinois in my family kitchen.
MEIER: Built in 1907. My grandma drug all the logs home with a pack of mules for the house and the barn and then they were cut up here.
Meier’s a big, blond, round-faced guy. Solid. He looks like a farmer in a year of abundant harvest. He’s a small government Republican...
MEIER: Pro life, pro business.
He won his first election in 2012. The same year, Gov. Pat Quinn shocked the people in Meier’s district when he decided to close two facilities for people with developmental disabilities - one of them was the 50-year-old Murray Developmental Center.
QUINN: We will provide individualized care and we will achieve savings for the people of Illinois.
Ever since, Meier’s been in a bitter fight to save the state-run facility for people with conditions like severe autism and cerebral palsy.
It’s a battle clouded by politics, jobs and human suffering.
REPORTER: How much has this dominated your life?
MEIER: It is my life. Everywhere I go this is the conversation. Because they know that I will help them in any way I can.
The Murray center is in Centralia, Illinois - about an hour east of St. Louis. It’s a circle of small residential buildings on a grassy campus. When I drove into the small town I saw a huge green Save Murray Center sign in the middle of the cornfields.
Those signs are all over - one chiropractor in a town 20 miles away from Murray painted the plea in big block letters on his office roof.
The struggle over Murray pits those of us upstate against everyone down there - at least that’s how they see it. And it has a lot of Democrats and Republicans reversing their typical battle lines.
Most important: it’s the local version of a debate happening nationally, between advocates who see facilities like Murray as dinosaurs, and parents and guardians who are certain their loved ones won’t survive without this kind of care.
GRAUNER: Here’s... where’s that one picture.
Judy Grauner’s 26-year-old daughter Kathryn moved into Murray eight years ago. I met Judy and Kathryn at the center back in August.
Kathryn is friendly, and funny and completely there.
She is obsessed with firefighters - and when I met her she called me butthead, which I was assured means she likes me. But Kathryn has what her mom calls “meltdowns” where she tries to hurt herself - badly.
GRAUNER: Broken nose day after day. And that was our life. She was gonna kill herself by hitting her head so much if I didn’t have a place like this.
Grauner says deciding to place Kathryn at Murray was the hardest - and best thing she’s ever done.
Now Quinn’s plan is to move Kathryn and the rest of the Murray residents into smaller group homes out in the community.
But Grauner says these places - with just one or maybe two workers at a time, wouldn’t be able to keep Kathryn safe.
GRAUNER: I always kid I say she’s like the incredible hulk and it takes five people to try and hold her, she’s that strong and powerful. The community just isn’t set up for someone like her yet. And I just feel so bad because I want her to be able to leave Murray someday but it has to be on her terms, when she’s ready.
EDDIE: That’s bobby’s room, and Jeff’s room and the office.
REPORTER: This your room?
EDDIE: That’s my room.
Eddie Fleming lived in Jacksonville Developmental Center until it was closed in 2012. Jacksonville serves the same sort of people as Murray. And it’s on a big grassy campus like Murray, but it looks more like a typical institution. Big, hulking buildings made of stone.
Now Fleming lives in this four bedroom house in a nice neighborhood in Springfield with two other former Jacksonville residents.
Fleming clearly loves it here. He’s got his own room and he has control over the money he makes at his part time job picking up trash.
He’s used that money to fill his room with electronics, two stereos -one on each side of his bed, a TV, and a karaoke machine which he uses to sing two songs for me - including Proud to be an American.
The people who work with Fleming say he has flourished since the move.
PAULAUSKI: Community living is much more individualized. And presents a much higher quality of life. A much healthier, safer life.
That’s Tony Paulauski, the head of the disability advocacy group the ARC of Illinois. He says it also helps the bottom line.
PAULASKI: It’s also a benefit to the state in terms of fiscal situation. You can serve three people in the community for the cost of one person in the institution.
Paulauski, and the researchers I talked to say people with the highest needs are the ones who benefit the most from moving into the community. He says Quinn deserves credit for making a good but unpopular choice.
PAULAUSKI: Here you have a Democratic governor, strong support from these state unions. And then on the other side you have Republicans all of a sudden saying we need to keep these facilities open. This is where waste is in the Illinois disability system.
MEIER: Centralia, most of it sits in Marion county and that is typically one of the five highest unemployment areas in the state. Those 541 jobs are the equivalent of 80,000 jobs in Chicago, but down here he just doesn’t seem to care about that.
Meier and Grauner - and just about everyone else I talked to around Murray- say this decision isn’t about party - it’s about geography.
GRAUNER: I used to live in DuPage and people used to joke it’s like two different states but I never truly realized it until I lived down here. Around Chicago there are abundancy of services, and they aren’t down here. It’s like they just truly don’t care.
One thing Quinn surely does care about:
GRAUNER: There are so many people I know, because of Murray center will vote Republican.
The numbers bear that out: back in the Democratic primary Tio Hardiman - a Chicago guy who couldn’t muster 30 percent statewide beat Quinn by more than 2 votes to 1 in Marion County.
The people around Murray were sending a message.
And that message isn’t about jobs or politics - it’s about what they believe is the best care for the people they love.
During my trip people told me: state government is there to help people the most vulnerable
That’s something the Murray parents and the people trying to close it agree on.
It might be the only thing.