Cindy Tyler openly admits that she had serious reservations about taking her son Michael out of institutional care and placing him in a group home several years ago.
"Would he get his medicine like he should, would they feed him properly," recalled Tyler,
playing over the concerns in her head.
"I felt the pangs of fear and anxiety, and I was just as anxious as they are now."
Tyler is referring to an entire community of parents and caretakers now grappling with a very difficult question- how should they care for their loved ones with disabilities if Virginia
solidifies plans to close down the state's institutions?
"I want them to know what's possible for their son or daughter in the community," said
Tyler. "It's been such a positive experience for us, and our family."
Michael now lives in a one-story home in Hanover County, run by Central Virginia-based
Good Neighbor Homes.
Though 40 years of age, Michael functions at the cognitive level of a 12-to-18 month-old child. He requires total care, from eating and medicine to dressing and bathing, and has cerebral palsy.
Despite considerable physical and intellectual disabilities, however, Cindy says her son has been able to thrive outside of an institutional setting.
"I thought he was happy at the training center," said Tyler. "But outside [of the state-run facility] he's got color in his cheeks, he's pulling back some function that he had lost, he's more active
and he's on his feet more. It's just a better situation."
According to Cindy, her son has regained the ability to feed himself, a skill he lost while spending nearly three decades at the Southside Virginia Training Center in Petersburg.
One of the employees who takes care of Michael, Iris Smith-George, told CBS 6 he has also become more mobile in just the last year.
During our visit, Smith-George helped prepare breakfast for Michael and brushed his teeth.
She said her approach to her work is simple, that "you have to have it in your heart- it's not just a job, you have to love people."
After a brief pause, she smiled and added, "you have to *love people, to love this job."
But finding the right placement for Michael wasn't easy for Cindy, who explained that the family had a couple failures before finding the right fit.
"I can tell you, there's good ones, and there's not so good ones," said Tyler, referring to the gamut of group home services available. "You gotta find the good ones. Go out there and just look! You know what your needs are, go out there and demand it."
For many families with loved ones at institutions, the greatest fear of transitioning a loved one to the community is the potential for abuse or neglect.
Matt Marek, the executive director of Good Neighbor Homes, acknowledged that "the standards of what the industry is headed toward now, there's going to need to be changes within the oversight of the services, and with what providers are doing as well."
But Marek expressed confidence that Virginia will tighten its licensing and oversight mechanisms as more families transition from training centers, and explained that the state still has many good providers to choose from, like Good Neighbor Homes.
"We have plenty of parents who come to us and their loved one or their child has intensive behavioral or medical needs that they've supported for 20, 30, 40, or sometimes 50 years," said Marek.
"We look at what we need to put in place, within the home, that's personalized to their need."
Good Neighbor operates 21 homes and serves roughly 100 people, many of whom previously received institutional care.
Cindy says the experience of relocating Michael to community-based care, at one time a terrifying prospect, has proved to be a very rewarding decision.
"I'm a believer," concluded Tyler. "I know it works. I know it *can work. But you've gotta do your homework, you've gotta ask questions and you've gotta keep your child in mind and what their individual needs are."
For caretakers interested in researching the history of licensed group home providers, the state's Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services offers that ability on its website.
If you’re looking for information from January 1, 2012 on, you can visit the DBHDS licensing page here, http://lpss.dbhds.virginia.gov, and search for inspections or investigations of a particular provider.
Prior to that date, you can either go to the licensing page, http://www.dbhds.virginia.gov/OL-default.htm, and conduct a 'licensed provider search,' or call the office of licensing by phone for inspection or investigation information.