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Suit: White Haven, Polk centers closing increase chance of abuse, neglect

Standard-Speaker - 1/30/2020

Jan. 30--Closing state centers at White Haven and Polk will make residents with intellectual disabilities more vulnerable to abuse and neglect, a lawsuit filed Wednesday on their behalf says.

Residents "unable to care for themselves in even the most basic ways" haven't given informed consent to the state's plan to close their long-time homes at the centers and move them into settings which for some, failed previously, according to the lawsuit.

While Pennsylvania has been following a national trend by closing institutions and moving people into homes where they will have more contact with nondisabled members of the community, the lawsuit says a center is the most inclusive setting for some residents.

Ronald Scruci, for example, had a seizure at birth and can't walk or talk. His hands and feet are curled. "He requires complete care including bathing, dressing eating, toileting, being placed in bed and anything else he wants to do," the suit says. After living in a group home didn't work, Scruci moved into Polk 54 years ago where he scoots around in his wheelchair, takes pride in throw rugs that he makes and is happy with the people and surroundings.

Before David Naulty entered White Haven, he lived in a state hospital with criminals because group homes couldn't handle his aggressive behaviors, which workers at White Haven have managed.

Maureen Jorda has a feeding tube and doesn't walk or talk, but an "experienced and competent staff" provides for her needs at White Haven, where she goes on road trips and enjoys other activities.

"If Maureen were surrounded by unfamiliar and less competent staff in the 'community' she would go into deep depression and deteriorate rapidly," the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit names Scruci, Naulty, Jorda and 10 other residents, but is a class action brought on behalf of the more than 300 residents of White Haven and Polk.

Filed by attorney Thomas York of Harrisburg against Gov. Tom Wolf and administrators involved in closing the centers, the lawsuit seeks no money other than legal fees.

But the suit asks U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania to retain the centers for those who choose to live in them.

On Jan. 21, York joined families of residents, lawmakers and center workers during a rally at the state Capitol to explain the lawsuit. Lawmakers at the rally also spoke in favor of a bill that prevents closing any centers without a vote from a task force and the passage of five years. The bill passed both the House and Senate, but Wolf hasn't decided whether to veto it or let it become law.

Under the Wolf administration's plan, Pennsylvania would keep open two centers, but the lawsuit says those centers lack the capacity to take in residents from White Haven and Polk, which is in Venango County.

People with intellectual disabilities also can live in private centers, smaller group homes, nursing homes or with relatives or foster families. In their residences, they can receive support from therapists and other practitioners.

Caring for people in the community costs less per person than care in state centers, the state has said.

The lawsuit, however, says the state might underestimate the cost of community care because center residents have great needs for services.

"In reality, the cost for caring for these residents in 'community' settings would be equal to or higher than care in these centers," the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit claims that people shifted from centers into community settings face approximately 75% "greater risk of death, abuse, and neglect as compared to similar persons receiving services at a facility like Polk or White Haven Centers."

"Many Polk and White Haven residents have lived in the community at some time. Such placements have proven to be unsuccessful," the lawsuit says. "Some have already been rejected or will be rejected for admissions to group homes due to their challenging behaviors or due to their extreme care needs."

To be eligible to live in a state center, residents must have severe, chronic disabilities attributable to mental or physical impairments or both.

Residents receive support from a team that includes physical, occupational and speech therapists, doctors and nurses. They are monitored around the clock.

Policies at the centers "seek to make each person's living arrangements home-like, cozy and individually decorated."

Residents have opportunities to take field trips, attend worship services and learn life skills. Some residents work at jobs such as shredding paper at the centers.

Care in the centers, however, will deteriorate or has deteriorated since the state made plans to close them on Aug. 14, 2019, because workers will leave so those remaining will have more duties, the lawsuit claims.

Most residents have lived at centers for 20 years and many for more than 40 years.

The lawsuit says the state is closing centers and forcing residents to transfer without their consent, the consent of their guardians or appropriate recommendations from treating professionals.

Many interdisciplinary teams agree that residents are best served in their existing centers, but the lawsuit says social workers will be sending letters promoting community placements. "Such communications are or will be based upon a political agenda to close all Centers rather than upon sound and unbiased accepted professional judgments," the lawsuit says.

Two centers that would remain open in Selinsgrove, Snyder County, and Ebensburg, Cambria County, "do not have the current planned capacity to take any significant number of the Plaintiff Class."

Moving to another center, the suit says, "would still rip the residents ... from their long-time homes with great potential harm."

Contact the writer:; 570-501-3587


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