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Families fear transfers from White Haven Center

The Citizens' Voice - 8/9/2022

Aug. 9—Family members of people living in White Haven Center expect the state will press their relatives to transfer to another center by the end of November.

The state wants White Haven residents who have intellectual disabilities, autism or other conditions to move to a state center in Selinsgrove, Snyder County, Susan Jennings and Ann Winsock said Friday, a day before they met with relatives of other White Haven residents at St. Patrick's R.C. Church in White Haven. Meanwhile, residents at the Polk Center in Venango County are being redirected to one in Ebensburg, Cambria County, Jennings and Winsock said.

Three years ago as the number of residents in White Haven and Polk declined and the cost of care per person climbed, the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf made plans to close those centers. According to the state's plan, no resident would move before their families agreed to transfer to a private care setting like a group home or another state center.

As Wolf's final term nears an end, however, few residents have left White Haven and Polk voluntarily, and relatives said they feel pressure to move.

"Families and caregivers of residents were notified multiple times if they did not indicate a preferred placement by mid-June 2022, DHS would begin a planning process for those residents to be eventually transferred to Ebensburg and Selinsgrove," Brandon Cwalina, spokesperson for the state Department of Human Services that operates the centers, said in an email. "We have encouraged families and caregivers to return outreach made by their social workers so they can work toward making a decision on future living arrangements, and we continue to hope that this can be a collaborative process."

Jennings, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to keep White Haven and Polk open, called the plan to close those centers short-sighted.

"The community system is in shambles, short staffed and never adequate for the needs of our people," she said.

Tour of Selinsgrove site

Jennings asked why the 4,561 Pennsylvanians with autism or intellectual disabilities who are on a waiting list to receive services within two years haven't been given the option of living in White Haven or Polk.

On Thursday, she toured Selinsgrove Center in Snyder County and didn't like what she saw.

Many rooms weren't suited for people like her 30-year-old son, Joseph, who has autism, because walls didn't reach the ceiling and wouldn't reduce noise or provide privacy.

"People with autism have very acute hearing that leads to behavior problems," Jennings said.

Rooms that did have full walls also had slits in doors like jail cells.

"It looked more like a prison than a suitable place for autistic individuals," she said while adding that increased cases of autism suggests that the state will need more rooms in the future for providing care to young adults like her son.

Jennings is also disturbed by what happened at the Selinsgrove Center to Denise LaRoche, who was imprisoned after being charged with assaulting and injuring workers last year.

"What is the criteria for calling police on a resident? Is that how I can expect my son to be treated," Jennings said.

Winsock said her sister, Janine, becomes distressed when caregivers move her to a visiting room at White Haven so a move to Selinsgrove would be traumatic.

"Janine is severely autistic, bipolar, blind and needs a lot of care," Winsock said. "Just moving her into another building she is in a very disturbed state of mind ... she doesn't even enjoy the visits."

Gregory M. Smith, chair of the board of trustees at White Haven, where he was the center director, said most of the residents have physical disabilities, medical issues and behavioral challenges.

"Few have speech; many take food and nourishment through tube feedings and most are non-ambulatory. It takes dedicated, experienced direct service workers to support their basic care," Smith wrote in an op-ed article submitted to the Standard-Speaker on Friday.

When the state announced plans to close White Haven, the center had 112 residents. Since then 12 have transferred — five to group homes and seven to other state centers, Smith said.

But 34 died, including at least seven from COVID-19.

Polk's census dropped from 194 to 136. Eleven went to group homes and 19 to other state centers, while 28 died.

Although most residents opted to stay put, workers at Polk and White Haven left faster to find new jobs after the state proposed closings.

"We are talking about those employees who train and mentor new staff and are most familiar with the physical and behavioral needs of the residents," wrote Smith, adding that departures affected the quality of care and put more strain on the remaining employees.

He recommended downsizing White Haven but keeping it open with administrative support from Selinsgrove.

Awaiting trial

Meanwhile, Jennings and other family members who sued the state two years ago to keep open White Haven and Polk are waiting for their case to go to trial.

On Sunday, Tom Kashatus, president of White Haven Center Relatives and Friends, emailed a form letter that relatives and friends of White Haven residents can mail to the center's director if they don't want their family member or friends moved until after the court case ends.

"Furthermore," the form letter says, "should you or your administrative staff proceed with my family members' or responsible individual's involuntary move, against my expressed wishes to any state center or other location, that I will hold you, and all that staff involved, civilly responsible."

Luzerne County Council on July 28 heard from relatives of White Haven Center who said their family members will suffer if they have to move. On Tuesday at its work session, the council members plan to discus sending a letter asking the governor to keep the White Haven and Polk centers open.

Contact the writer:; 570-501-3587


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