About 300 disabled adults have moved to homes in ordinary neighborhoods from the sprawling campus of the state institution in West Seneca while Russell C. Siraguse has been its director during the past three years.
The group homes established for them have generated controversy and faced opposition in many of those neighborhoods.
Siraguse has kept himself away from the heat of the controversies while the resident population at the West Seneca Developmental Disabilities Office campus has declined from about 700 to close to 400 since he became its director in 1992.
But Siraguse, who is taking early retirement this week, has been a strong advocate of the program to move the disabled out of large institutional settings.
Mimi Vitale of Hamburg, an adviser to the Self Advocacy Association, a statewide organization of disabled people, said Siraguse's retirement "will be a loss to the community involved with people with developmental disabilities. He has an agenda that puts the needs and the right to choice of these persons on an equal basis with everyone.
"People with disabilities sense his genuine commitment to them. They will feel his absence," she added.
Mrs. Vitale, whose 25-year-old, learning-disabled son now lives on his own, recalled Siraguse's comments during a self-advocacy meeting of a dozen disabled people in the Hamburg Library.
"He answered questions, gave them encouragement. 'Do something, don't just complain,' he told them. They were amazed," she said.
Before becoming director of the West Seneca facility, Siraguse headed a similar state institution in Newark. During the eight years he was director there, the entire resident population of 550 was transferred to homes in the community.
Nearly half the state's large residential institutions for the disabled have now closed. Under the proposed budget of Gov. Pataki, two others will close in the coming year, but any additional closings will be held up pending a thorough review of the program.
Siraguse says the shift to community homes is not an end in itself, but a means.
"One of the things I found when I got here, was there was no strategic management plan. I brought in a team to help do an evaluation, set some goals, a vision and a direction," Siraguse said.
The goals include "more opportunities and a quality of life" for the disabled, improvements in employee training and morale, and assurance and improvement in the quality of care, he said.
While residents have been moving to group homes in neighborhoods, Siraguse says his office has also initiated or increased services to people living in their own homes.
Asked if he believes his agency has had an adequate process of notification and preparation for neighborhoods designated for group homes, Siraguse said:
"If you look at certain reactions, you'd probably have to say no. There's never enough public education."
But in every neighborhood where some residents vocally oppose a new group home, there are other neighbors who quietly support it, he said. "And once we're there, we're one of the best neighbors," and opposing residents find their fears do not materialize, he added.
There have been "only a few cases in the last 10 years, a statistically small number" of violence by residents of a managed group home, he said. These occurrences are minimized by supervision and training, he added.
Both Siraguse's parents worked in institutions for the disabled in Rochester. He began his career in 1966 at what was then the West Seneca State School.
Siraguse's leadership at West Seneca achieved "many positive changes," said Susan O'Reilly, assistant commissioner of the state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. "He was always very firm in what he believed to be best for people with disabilities."