AFTER 110 years, the Stockton Centre has been emptied of its residents.
The last batch moved into their group homes a few weeks ago.
Kanangra at Morisset has been similarly closed.
At Tomaree Lodge at Port Stephens, the state government expects it could take until the middle of 2021 for a final handful of residents to "transition" into new accommodation.
A fourth institution, Casuarina Grove at Hamlyn Terrace on the Central Coast was opened in 2011 to cater for aged people with intellectual disability.
After a recent call for tenders, management passed to a not-for-profit group, Ability Options.
It is, as the Minister for Families, Communities and Disability Services, Gareth Ward, said in a statement last week to the Newcastle Herald, "the end of an era".
The closures of Stockton, Kanangra and Tomaree have been a long time coming.
The push to end the institutionalisation of people with disability stretches back decades, but the policy that would drive the closure of the state's "large residential centres" was a Labor initiative continued by the Coalition when it took power in March 2011.
The die was cast in December 2012 when the O'Farrell government handed responsibility for disability services to Canberra by signing up to federal Labor's National Disability Insurance Service, the NDIS.
That article included an interview with Wendy Cuneo, already a seasoned Stockton Centre advocate and who would become the media's go-to person as the closure saga unfolded.
A registered nurse, Wendy and her husband Clem had adopted three children, all with serious levels of disability, over nine years from 1975.
Today, one son lives independently and their daughter lives in a group home.
Their younger son, David, moved to Stockton when he was 18. He was 40 when he moved out this year.
At public meetings and protests, other families spoke publicly about their concerns at the closures, and about their fear of shortcomings in the group home model, which replaces the traditional "medical" model of nursing care with lesser-qualified "disability support workers".
The situation was complicated by any number of problems with the nascent NDIS, as the organisation itself would soon enough acknowledge.
Many Stockton staff genuinely feared for the safety of the residents, but were threatened if they spoke out, and the government dismissed their concerns as self-interest for their jobs.
Port Stephens MP Kate Washington was another who fought hard for the residents and their families.
Through it all, Mrs Cuneo was a dogmatic thorn in the side of the politicians and the bureaucracy.
She continued her efforts wherever they took her, knowing she was representing a group of people who were largely unable to speak for themselves.
Supported behind the scenes by those who were unable to speak publicly, Mrs Cuneo ensured that letters were written, submissions lodged and the media kept abreast of developments.
And all while staying in regular contact with her three children, and helping others negotiate their way through guardianship tribunals and other bureaucracies.
Even now, with the battle over and the residents gone, she was there last week with another stalwart of the Stockton Centre Welfare Association,
Maureen Barclay, selling the final fixtures from the two cottages maintained by the association as accommodation for visiting families.
Cheques have already been sent to each departing resident, with a final payment to be made when the remaining money is divvied up.
The welfare association's work is described in a centenary history of the Stockton Centre, Beneath The Pines, published in 2010.
"The Welfare", as it was known, raised money for facilities, including two swimming pools opened in 1966.
It organised a social calendar that included fetes, Santa on the Oval, Christmas in July and sometimes a Spring Ball.
It ran a shop on the site and began a foster grandparents scheme in 1985 that had up to 50 volunteer and was credited with "significant" improvements in the behaviour of those residents taking part.
Against all of the disappointments the fight has entailed, Mrs Cuneo still believes she was right to oppose the closures.
"I've had friends say to me: 'Well, that was a waste of time, wasn't it!' but it wasn't," Mrs Cuneo said.
"The house where David is now is very nice, although it's tiny, and the staff are wonderful. And they take him out all over the place.
"They sent me a video on the phone of him catching a fish today.
"But he had the run of this place and everyone knew him, and knew where he was. This was his community and he still misses it, he still asks when is he going back to Stockton for dinner."
In the 2000s, a roll-call of politicians have served as disability services minister.
Fay Lo Po, John Della Bosca, Kristina Keneally, Paul Lynch and Peter Primrose held the portfolio for Labor.
It was the Primrose plan that had Jodi McKay at the centre in the accompanying January 2011 photo.
The Coalition ministers have been Andrew Constance, John Ajaka, Ray Williams and the incumbent, Gareth Ward.
Mrs Cuneo has met most of them along the way, and met Mr Ward, at his invitation, soon after he began in the role in April last year.
They say it's gone wonderfully, but that's not always been the caseWendy Cuneo
In his statement to the Herald, Mr Ward thanked the "residents, their families, friends and supporters for working with us throughout this transition".
"I want to acknowledge that whilst this may be the end of an era for Stockton, this is the next iteration in positive disability supports," Mr Ward said.
"Change is not always easy, but I remain committed to the best possible care for people with very complex needs.
"The safe and smooth transition of residents from large residential centres to brand new, fit-for-purpose group homes in the community, remains the sole focus of the Hunter Residences program.
"This approach has been bipartisan policy for more than 20 years, and is all about empowering people with disabilities to have choice and control over their lives.
"The transfer of specialist disability supports to the non-government sector signifies a generational change to disability support.
"There is still much more work to be done, and we will continue to take a methodical approach to every transfer, which carefully considers each individual's needs."
Reading Mr Ward's statement, Mrs Cuneo described it as another example of papering over the cracks.
"They say it's gone wonderfully, but that's not always been the case."
"It's not blaming the staff," Mrs Cuneo said.
"At Stockton and the other centres you had a nursing based staff who knew about proper feeding of people with swallowing problems, who could tell by subtle signs that something was wrong because they can't tell you themselves.
"Now, if it's anything more complicated than giving standard medication, they're supposed to call for the ambulance or they have to get them to a doctor, or get a doctor to come in.
"It is the end of an era, I'll agree with that.
"And for a lot of people it's been an improvement.
"But I still say the difference between what everyone was promised and what they got, is enormous. And what really worries me now, is that if things do go wrong, no-one will take responsibility for the mistakes."
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