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Controversy Brews as Officials Hear from Both Sides at Public Hearing for Closure of Polk State Center
(Photos by Dave Cyphert of ProPoint Media Photography).
The hearing is necessary under Act 3 of 1999, which requires the Department of Human Services (DHS) to hold public hearings within 30 days of announcing plans to close a facility for individuals with intellectual disabilities.
Comments offered at these hearings are intended to guide DHS during the transition process and help DHS understand resources and options that will need to be made available to residents and families during the transition.
However, in the case of the Polk Center hearing, the comments came across as more of a debate, with those standing for the closure of the center facing off against those standing against it, despite an early comment from a DHS official that raised the ire of some of the Polk Center supporters in the crowd.
“While our decision to close these centers is final, tonight we do hope to hear from all of you,” stated Kristin Ahrens, Deputy Secretary of the Office of Developmental Programs (ODP).
“Your feedback on what we can do in terms of these transitions, to make this as seamless and smooth as possible.”
According to Deputy Secretary Ahrens, the DHS and ODP goal is to “provide services and supports so that all of the individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism can enjoy everyday lives in their communities.”
She also noted that no resident from Polk Center or White Haven will be moved without a highly individualized transition plan to ensure all of their physical, medical, and behavioral needs will be met.
Following Ahrens opening statements, the public comment period began.
Those speaking were asked to register in advance, and family members were given the first option to be scheduled. Each person was given just five minutes to speak.
The moderator also asked that the crowd refrain from any clapping, cheering, or verbal agreement or disagreement during the comments to allow the stenographer to hear to record the comments.
That request, however, was roundly denied by the crowd at multiple points throughout the night.
The first two speakers were Polk Center residents, speaking up in defense of their longtime home.
“I’ve lived here for a long time, since I was 18,” the first resident stated, in a letter he wrote, read by one of his caretakers.
“I like it here. I have my own nice room with my own television and pictures. In the community, there is too much crime to live there. I read about it in the newspaper, and it scares me. Here, I feel protected. I do like to visit places in the community to eat, shop, and go to fairs with wheelchair-accessible rides.
“The people at my job in the mailroom are nice to me, and I love working there. I don’t want to lose my home.”
The second speaker echoed many of the same sentiments, but this time through a speech he prepared through an assistive technology device with a robotic voice.
“When I was told about Polk Center closing, and that I would lose my family, and my home, I cried for days,” he said.
“Polk Center has been my home for most of my life. My mom, dad, and sister, in heaven, wanted me to stay here and be in a place that felt like home and where I was safe. They were promised that I would. I’m sure they are heartbroken to know that promise was broken.”
He went on to describe the many activities he enjoys at Polk Center and in the local community, as well as his job and described his friends and the staff as his family.
“I love my family, and I will lose my family.”
He went on to note he feels safe at Polk Center and worries about his safety in a group home setting and is also upset that the residents were not asked or given any opportunity to voice their opinion prior to the announcement.
“It is not fair that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania did not ask me or even care about my choice of where I want to live. My right to chose and my voice has been taken away from me, and I do not want to live anywhere else other than Polk Center. This is my home. This is my choice, and I have a right to chose. Do not take away my family and my home. Do not take away my voice. Do not take away my rights.”
Not all of the voices raised were raised in favor of keeping Polk Center open, though.
“The Pennsylvania DD Council supports the Department of Human Services plan to close Polk Center because it aligns with our work,” said Shirley Keith Knox, co-chairperson of the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities (DD) Council.
“The DD council envisions a Commonwealth comprised of inclusive communities where all people are valued.”
“Disability Rights Pennsylvania supports the decision of the Department of Human Services to close Polk State Center,” said Peri Jude Radecic, of Disability Rights Pennsylvania.
“The closure of Polk Center and White Haven continue the national trend toward community inclusion of people with disabilities.”
Radecic noted that statistics from the Institute for Cognitive Disabilities, 13 states, and the District of Columbia have no more state institutions, and have been able to provide community-based services to all of their residents with disabilities.
However, when Radecic said that the open forum provided as a part of the closure process “may be the first time that individuals with disabilities actually receive options for the first time,” the crowd was roused, and shouts of “lies” rang out.
Some other speakers who voiced favor toward the closure included Sherri Landis, Executive Director at The Arc of Pennsylvania; Ned Whitehead, Assistant Project Manager for the Pennsylvania Waiting List Campaign; Tia Nellis, Director of Policy & Advocacy for TASH; and Tom Carasiti, an advocate for Vision for Equality.
Nevertheless, despite so many organizations standing for the closure, there were also some representatives of organizations against the closure in attendance to speak.
Shelbie Stromyer, a local resident, RN, and representative of the Nurses of Pennsylvania, stood and spoke for several organizations.
“This issue isn’t about the closure of these two centers, but is part of a much larger problem of underfunding quality of care in Pennsylvania,” Stromyer said.
“I have found no research, and neither have other nurses in the state, that gives statistics to justify the removal of these individuals from their home, from their lifelong friends and caretakers who are highly trained and truly care for the people living at both centers.”
Stromyer went on to note that the financial impetus behind the decision is made more difficult by an “unfair tax system that lets large nonprofit health systems and corporations pay no taxes, thus relying on small businesses and working taxpayers to shoulder the responsibilities of our state services, resulting in a fractured healthcare system.”
“Our community and public services are stretched beyond repair,” she noted.
“If these centers close, then it will become the responsibility of these specific departments to attempt to provide care. Our police departments are understaffed, our nurses are understaffed, our social services are understaffed, our EMS system is understaffed, and our nursing homes are understaffed. Why would the government require these departments to take on more responsibilities when they are understaffed, overworked, and undertrained, when all along there are facilities with trained persons to cover all aspects of each individual’s needs?”
Stromyer also noted that she was given permission to speak against the closure of Polk Center not only for the Nurses of Pennsylvania but also for the Oil City Police Department, the Polk Borough Police Department, Sugarcreek Borough Police Department, Franklin Police Department, the Venango County Sheriff’s Department, Nurses of Venango County, Venango County Social Services Department, and the Venango County EMS Department.
“We all stand together so that when something happens, and it will should the Pennsylvania government follow through with their plans, we will stand together and we will say ‘we told you so.’ When the Pennsylvania government points their fingers at one of these departments, blaming and criticizing someone within one of these departments, we have already voiced our opinions.”
Many other people, from family members of Polk Center residents and Polk Center employees to local and state officials also spoke against the closure.
State Rep. Lee James noted Pennsylvania Advocacy Resources for Autism and Intellectual Disabilities found, in May 2018, that the turnover rate for caregivers in Pennsylvania is 38 percent.
“I don’t think you experience that at Polk. I think this is a huge problem that isn’t going to go away in the community centers.”
He also went on to state that over a ten year period ending in 2015, there were 1,200 deaths attributed to some of the closures across the nation.
“You want to talk about something final? That’s pretty final.”
James noted that another issue that remains unanswered is what will happen to the individuals at Polk Center who have violent tendencies.
“Some of those residents, as you know, have been there for 50 years, give or take. It is their home. They have bonded with their caregivers. They have become family, as it’s been pointed out, and they have access to care around the clock.”
Jim Miller, president of Polk Borough Council and owner of the Main Street Market in Polk, also spoke in support of Polk Center.
“That’s their home. That’s their community. We are their community. We love these people,” Miller noted.
“There’s a terrible misconception (about) the people of Polk. The people that can walk around, a lot of them, the young people especially, have been committed there by the courts for a reason. The other people that are there are old and this is their home. They want to stay there.”
Miller went on to state that, as a board member of a local personal care home, he is very aware that the Polk Center residents will not be accepted in many care homes.
“We cannot take care of them like you do. I’ll tell you right now that it’s a total different world. We have no doctors on staff. The argument that they’re going to get just as good of care on the outside….you’re right, it’s B.S.”
State Senator Scott Hutchinson also lent his voice in favor of keeping Polk Center open.
“Today I join so many others who are sending out a 9-1-1 message on behalf of the vulnerable residents of Polk Center and our entire community,” Sen. Hutchinson said.
“This move by DHS, better described as an eviction, will be disruptive beyond description for those who have known no other home. Not only will their physical home change dramatically, their familiar, caring, professional, long-time caregivers will also be changing, unfortunately.”
“The residents will be thrust into a group home industry that has well-documented problems with high staff turnover and significant staff shortages. The group home industry does not have the mandatory, ongoing training to prepare staff nor is there 24-hour access to nursing and other specialized medical care, which is necessary for these very fragile and medically complicated residents.”
Hutchinson went on to note that the state has yet to answer what will happen to those currently housed in the state centers who have done poorly in other settings once the “safety net” of the state centers is removed.
“Certainly, there are far more questions than there are answers due to this poorly planned ambush. In closing, I think we can agree on one thing: we should be more sufficiently using the massive infrastructure included on the beautiful Polk Center campus.”
“I believe that not only should Polk Center remain open, as the home of choice for these residents, but I think DHS should be open to suggestions to simultaneously do more things here on the campus. Many ideas have come forward. One idea would be to expand the center’s mission, to continue to serve as a residence, but also serve as a center of excellence, to train and assist caregivers statewide, and nationwide, for all persons with disabilities.”
“Polk has a built-in reputation for great expertise and certainly, there will be more and more individuals with complex behavioral issues who will have a great difficulty living in the community. Polk’s professional staff can help other agencies and providers raise the level of their staff’s expertise, as well as serve as an innovator for care and service for those individuals in other settings who are exhibiting new challenges.”
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