Electronic Watchdog Keeps Developmentally Disabled Safe

And The Program Is Cheaper Than Having Staff Members Stay In People’s Houses Overnight.

Lesley Rogers Barrett County reporter, Wisconsin State Journal

If Monica Reese opens her front door or leaves her bedroom in the middle of the night, someone knows. Her movements are tracked by motion detectors. If she needs help, she can push a button and a voice on a speakerphone asks if she is OK.

If there’s a problem, a caretaker is at her home in minutes. If a situation appears more dire — like if her smoke detector goes off — emergency crews are dispatched.

Reese, who is developmentally disabled, used to have an overnight staff person sleep at her apartment, just in case something happened. Now she’s one of 112 people using Sound Response, a county program run by the UW-Madison Waisman Center, which monitors developmentally disabled people overnight, using electronic sensors.

At first Monica, who works at Wal-Mart in Stoughton, missed having a staff person spend the night at her house. But now she likes the system, which gives her a little more independence.

“I like it,” she said. “Nobody can break in.”

Her mother, Shirley Reese of Stoughton, said she sleeps better knowing someone is monitoring her daughter at night.

“She’s safe and that’s a great feeling,” Shirley Reese said.

Sound Response isn’t for everyone with disabilities, county officials say. But for those who need someone to sleep at their home “just in case,” it’s ideal. It offers more independence and saves money, said Dan Rossiter, community services manager for the Dane County Department of Human Services.

“It’s folding together cellular technology along with computer technology,” Rossiter said.

The program costs about $400,000 a year, which is about $250,000 less than hiring overnight staff people.

Developmental disabilities programs, along with other Human Services programs, took a hit in next year’s $399 million county budget, in part because of more than $7 million in cuts from the state.

Most developmental disability agencies will see at least a 2 percent cut in their county funding next year.

County Executive Kathleen Falk said Sound Response is a unique program that helps cut costs but still allows for “top quality services.”

She said the program is voluntary and the county won’t do away with all overnight staff for the disabled.

“For some people, 24-hour care is vital,” Falk said.

The county started with just a few households in March 2002 and expanded to 62 households this year.

Using a few computers and phones at a headquarters on Traceway Drive in Madison, two Sound Response workers monitor movements in the homes from about 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. “First responders” are stationed throughout Dane County, on call to respond to a home if there is trouble.

About 90 percent of problems are handled over the phone or speakerphone. If the person pushes a button signaling they are having trouble, staff can contact them through an open phone line.

“There is an element of big brotherish feeling to it, but we can hear people only if they activate it,” said Duane Tempel, outreach specialist at Waisman Center, which studies developmental disabilities and contracts with Dane County to operate the program.

Jen Squire, chair of the Developmental Disabilities Coalition, said even if the county didn’t face tough financial times, she’d support Sound Response.

“From the perspective of the consumer, for quite a good number of people, it’s a positive move toward more ownership of their home,” Squire said.

Squire said the cost savings of Sound Response means less cuts to consumers. She said no one has been laid off because of Sound Response, but there are cost savings when caregivers quit and aren’t replaced.

Squire said Sound Response is especially good for the smaller communities, where good overnight care can be difficult to find.

Sound Response has picked up on problems that overnight caregivers couldn’t, Squire said.

Donna Schwanc, who lives in the same apartment building as Monica Reese, was one of the first people to switch to Sound Response. Schwanc, who works at McDonalds during the day, said she likes the safety of it. She was cooking once and the smoke detector went off and emergency crews responded quickly.

“I’m glad they’re there,” Schwanc said.

Reprinted with permission.