Polk State Center to close - Titusville Herald: News

Polk State Center to close

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Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2019 5:00 am

Pennsylvania government announced Wednesday that the Polk State Center will close within the next three years, shutting one of Venango County’s top employers.

In an announcement by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, it was said that Polk and White Haven state centers will be closed as part of a transition toward home- and community-based services for people with disabilities. White Haven is located in Luzerne County. The department said that the closure is part of an ongoing, gradual process which has seen most of Pennsylvania’s state centers closed since the 1960s.

“Twenty years ago, state centers served 13,000 individuals,” the announcement read. “Today, fewer than 720 individuals receive care in a state center, a decrease of more than 70% since 1999.”

Erin James, press secretary for DHS, told The Herald that there has been a national movement toward community focused care for people with intellectual disabilities.

“On both a national and local level, evidence consistently shows that individuals living with intellectual disabilities do better when they live in the community in terms of both their health and their quality of life,” James said.

Disability rights groups are celebrating the decision. Peri Radecic, chief executive for Disability Rights Pennsylvania, said the move toward community-based care was a positive trend for the state.

“We commend the governor and (DHS Secretary Teresa) Miller for making the announcement and providing people with real options — real choices to look at community living,” Radecic said.

However, local officials are expressing fears over the economic impact of the center’s closure. Venango County Commissioner Vincent Witherup said the commissioners were given only 30 minutes forewarning before the public announcement was made.

“That hit us like a ton of bricks this morning, because we had no inkling that was coming,” Witherup said.

In Witherup’s estimation, the center employs anywhere between 700 to 800 people, making it one of the top five employers in Venango County. As such, the loss of the center represents a major loss to the county.

“The thing is, the state took 700 to 800 folks out who are working at Polk right now,” he said. “I’m sure in the next three years, spending habits aren’t going to be the same as they were.”

Witherup said the commissioners would get in contact with the county’s state government representatives to push back against the action.

State Representative Lee James (R-64), expressed disappointed over the closure in a release.

“I’m disappointed about and disgusted with this announcement from the Department of Human Services,” James said. “It’s truly sad to realize nearly 200 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are being pushed out of their homes by a bunch of government bureaucrats.”

The closure of the Polk and White Haven centers is based on a similar procedure that was undertaken for the closure of the Hamburg State Center, which was shuttered in 2018. Over the next three years, DHS plans to develop “individualized transition plans” for each of the residents at the center.

“No resident will leave Polk or White Haven without a destination of their choosing and a fully developed plan that meets their physical, emotional, social and mental health needs,” said Miller. “We will not rush this process. We are committed to working closely with residents, families and employees to ensure a smooth, safe transition.”

Further, the department said it would seek employment opportunities for any workers at the center.

“Every effort will be made to place employees who wish to continue with commonwealth employment into existing vacant positions for which they qualify,” DHS said. “Furloughing staff is a last resort and the least desirable outcome.”

However, the Services Employees International Union #668, a union that represents many workers at both centers, decried the closure.

“These centers are more than residential homes for Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities — they are communities of safety, comfort and learning,” said Steve Catanese, the president of the union. “This is an ill-informed decision that will have the negative repercussions for both workers and residents of White Haven and Polk Center.”

On the other side, The Arc of Pennsylvania, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, celebrated the closure.

“Moving away from a system that relies on institutional care shows Pennsylvania’s commitment to investing in the lives of people with disabilities,” said Sherri Landis, The Arc’s executive director. “From the closing of these two large state centers, we are reminded again and again that people with disabilities can live in their community, and, in fact, flourish when given the support and opportunities to do so.”

In a community-based treatment system, individuals with disabilities live in smaller housing units, often with only a few other people. According to Radecic, such conditions give the resident more freedom and allow people to live closer to friends and family. Radecic read aloud a statement supporting community-based treatment written by a Disabilities Rights Pennsylvania employee who formerly lived in an institution like the Polk State Center.

“If I stayed in an institution, I would not have the life I have today,” Radecic read from the statement, written by Jean Serle. “I was not allowed to make my own choices or have any freedom in the institution. I was told when to do things and what I had to do.”

However, the closure has caused disruption for Venango County government. Witherup said the commissioners are still trying to formulate an action plan to respond to the closure, and he expressed dissatisfaction in the suddenness of the announcement.

“I have to say, I’m extremely disappointed in how the state handled this,” he said. “When the commissioners are the last ones to know, that doesn’t bode well for their procedures, I guess.”

A public hearing on the closure will be held Sept. 1 by DHS officials. The hearing will take place at 1 p.m at Atlantic Avenue United Brethren Church, located at 160 Atlantic Ave., in Franklin.

James said that DHS has no immediate plans to close the remaining state centers, which are located in Snyder County and Cambria County, at this current moment.

Ray can be reached, by email, at sray@titusvilleherald.com.

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