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State closing home for mentally retarded amid continued appeals, protests

Wednesday, April 12, 2000

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

State officials said they would begin to shut down Western Center in Canonsburg today, an announcement that prompted last-minute court appeals, protests from parents and the near arrest of a mentally retarded resident after a confrontation with state police.

  Diana Wrana explains that her autistic daughter, Christine, 31, a resident of Western Center, would be moved to a facility in Ebensburg after Western closes. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday denied a last-minute appeal to block the transfer of 46 of the center's 56 remaining residents.

They are scheduled to move today to community-based group homes or to temporary accommodations in other state or private institutions while they await transfers to group homes, said Jay Pagni, spokesman for the state Department of Public Welfare.

The status of the other 10 remained uncertain because of pending litigation. Pagni said about 240 Western Center employees will receive furlough notices this week. April 28 is the last day the center is scheduled to be staffed.

As final preparations were made for the closing, the center operated more like a fortress than a home for the mentally retarded.

State police set up a roadblock behind the administrative building yesterday so relatives could not visit residents until they were moved to other facilities.

In the parking lot at Western Center yesterday morning, Laura Mooney used a cell phone to call her sister, Susan Riley, 48, who has lived there since 1972 and suffers from mild mental retardation and severe behavioral problems.

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Group homes set to receive Western Center residents


Riley was agitated because she learned she was being temporarily transferred to the state's Ebensburg Center in Cambria County. Eventually, she will be moved to a group home.

"I cannot come up to see you. Yes I am, I am very upset. I brought you a sundae from McDonald's," said Mooney, talking on the phone and holding a melting strawberry sundae.

A short time later, Riley came outside, surprising police and parents. She ran down a walkway toward a police barricade, screaming "That's my sister."

Still screaming, Riley went up to Trooper Daniel Kline and shoved him. He warned her not to touch him. Riley began pounding on a police car. Then she turned back to Kline and began pounding on his chest.

When she knocked off his hat and glasses, Kline and other troopers pressed her against a police car, handcuffed her and put her in a police wagon.

    Online graphic: Relocation of patients


With TV cameras recording the incident, it became a public relations nightmare for state officials.

"Now you know what Nazi Germany was like," said one parent who watched the arrest.

Police called for an ambulance to take Riley to the state police barracks in Washington, Pa. But before she was hauled away, Richard Kuppleweiser, executive director of Western Center, intervened and persuaded police to allow Riley to go back inside.

Talking to reporters, state police Capt. Frank Monaco did not rule out the possibility that she could be charged later.

Mooney said that when her sister becomes agitated, she sometimes hits people, although usually not strangers.

"That's why she is in here," said Mooney, president of a parents' group that has been fighting for years to stop Western Center from closing.

Later yesterday, angry parents kept a vigil at the administrative building while their lawyers filed the last-minute appeal to try to stop the 46 residents from being moved today.

"What the [Welfare Department] is doing is attempting to circumvent the entire appeals process," said Jesse Torisky, an attorney representing the parents and brother of one of the residents.

Yesterday, Torisky and attorney Michael Pribanic filed the emergency petition that the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court in Philadelphia later turned down. It had asked to halt the transfers.

The petition said the state was forcing the transfer of patients "in a secretive and precipitous fashion" without waiting for state Superior Court to rule on an appeal filed earlier this week.

Earlier this month, two lawyers successfully blocked the transfer of 10 residents who were involuntarily committed to Western Center.

Those residents cannot be moved until the Welfare Department gets permission from judges in Fayette, Beaver, Allegheny and Greene counties.

This morning, Pagni said, other residents will be transported to their new homes, two at a time, in vans. He said family members will not be allowed to see the residents until after they are moved.

"Nursing staff and physicians will be on hand to ensure the residents receive proper medications," Pagni said.

Pribanic, asked whether he was giving any advice to the parents about how to deal with police today, said: "If they are arresting the mentally retarded, I don't think we want to mess with them."

Even some organizations that pushed for Western Center to be closed condemned the way the Welfare Department was handling the shutdown.

Kevin Casey, executive director of Pennsylvania Protection and Advocacy, said the state was making a mistake by moving some of the residents to other institutions on a temporary basis.

"We expected each relocation to be individualized and never envisioned that people would be moved to places such as Ebensburg State Center," he said.

Martie Worley, executive director of ARC of Pennsylvania, and Marsha Blanco, chief executive officer of ARC Allegheny, echoed Casey's statements.

"It makes no sense to us that they would have to make two moves in such a short period of time," Worley said.

The three organizations were plaintiffs in a suit against Western Center that resulted in a 1992 settlement that allowed the state to move residents to community-based facilities.

In 1998, the state decided to close Western Center and move its remaining 380 residents to group homes.

In a statement, Washington County's state legislative delegation expressed concern yesterday that the closing of Western Center would affect both families and employees of the facility.

Dan Grove, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1050 at Polk Center in Venango County, said several Polk managers left the institution on Sunday and drove to Canonsburg to help with the Western Center closing.

Grove said none of the Western residents would be moved to Polk. The union long has held that Polk should be used for displaced Western residents because it is operating far below capacity. The union said the Welfare Department's decision not to use Polk proves that its principal goal is to close all state institutions.

For weeks, the Welfare Department has been saying that it planned to close Western Center by June 30.The 56 remaining residents are scheduled to go to a variety of destinations. Twenty were bound for four-resident group homes operated by Allegheny Valley Schools in Robinson, Moon and Brighton. But eight will stay temporarily at Allegheny Valley's main campus in Robinson while modifications to their future homes are completed.

Seven were to go to group homes in Bethel Park and Peters operated by Gertrude A. Barber Center, although a court ruling yesterday appeared to temporarily block the transfers to the Peters site. Four others were to go to Barber's main campus in Erie.

Four residents were to be transferred to a group home in Chippewa operated by McGuire Memorial Homes, Pagni said.

Twenty-one residents will have to wait for up until eight weeks before their intended permanent placements are ready, Pagni said.

The department planned to place them temporarily at the state's Ebensburg Center until other Barber-operated homes in the Canonsburg and Washington County area are completed, Pagni said.

The 10 whose transfers were blocked by court action "will be staying here until that is resolved," he said. "Ultimately, our [goal] would be that all 56 would move."

Staff writers Cindi Lash and Mike Bucsko and free-lance writer Patrick Hernan contributed to this report.

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