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Fast exit surprises a waiting family

Peters couple knew daughter was going, but not this quickly

Thursday, April 13, 2000

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Diane and Charles Wrana knew they couldn't hold the future at bay. They knew their daughter, Christine, would be moved soon from her home of 18 years at Western Center in Canonsburg to a different home in a different city. But they weren't sure when that would be.

The Peters couple found out yesterday morning. On a raw day made bleaker by the inability of families to even see their relatives, Christine and 43 other residents were removed from their rooms and transferred to new placements around Western Pennsylvania.

The Wranas had arrived at Western Center a bit after 8 a.m. to lend support to other families. They had gone to sleep thinking Christine would spend at least a few more days in her third-floor west room in Sherwood Towers. Saturday, they planned a day outing with their autistic daughter, who has the mental capacity of a 3-year-old, to celebrate her 31st birthday.

Western Center was a home away from home for the Wranas. For many years during the 1980s, both Christine and their oldest daughter, Cecelia, who has spina bifida and functions on the level of a 10-year-old, lived at the center. Cecelia, 37, was moved to a Fayette County group home in 1987. As difficult as their daughters' disabilities had been on the family, at least the girls still lived nearby.

Now, the Wranas were being told that Christine would be housed temporarily at the state's Ebensburg Center in Cambria County, a two-hour drive away. State officials said she would be moved to a group home closer to home in the future.

After hearing the news, the Wranas drifted in and out of the center's administration building, carried along by migrations of other families rallying against transfers and the closing of the center. Several welfare department officials and mental health professionals in the hallway attracted the wrath of families and retreated to the safety of a nearby snack room.

"That's right," yelled Jim Mooney, whose sister-in-law was being transferred. "Turn your back on us."

Diane Wrana commiserated with other parents and exchanged hugs. "You know who the Nazis came for first in Germany, don't you?" an elderly woman said. "They came for the mentally retarded. That's what they're doing here."

An excited woman ran up from a news conference taking place in a room down the hall. She carried a placard that read: "Gov. Ridge needs an organ transplant. He doesn't have a heart."

"You have to get in there," she told the Wranas and others. "[The state Welfare Department] is saying that [the residents] said they were happy to be moving to new homes. Can you believe that? Some of these kids can't even talk and they're saying they're happy to move. How do they know?"

The relatives, nearly all of them in their 60s or 70s, crowded into the news conference, hemming in officials behind a low desk. Security personnel had to clear a path for the officials to exit when the press conference ended.

"All these state people," Charles Wrana said afterward. "They always give you this, 'We understand how you feel.' They don't understand how we feel. Unless they have a child like we do, they can't understand."

Part of the Wranas' concern is that they don't believe the care Christine will receive in a group home will be the same quality she received at the center.

At Western, the Wranas said, Cecelia received speech and physical therapy more often than she does at the group home. And while group homes are monitored regularly, the Wranas said it's not the same as having doctors and therapists on site as the center did.

"There's no safety net at a group home," said Charles Wrana, a teacher at Finley Middle School in the Ringgold School District.

The Wranas were showing pictures of their three children -- a son, Vince, 30, works for a local computer company -- when a procession of vans with tinted windows and headlights burning drove slowly up the center's long entrance. The vans were waved through a state police roadblock and on to the brick buildings where the residents and their belongings waited. Welfare department officials had told families that residents would be moved two at a time in the vans to their new homes.

"People take the attitude, 'Oh, it's a shame these people have to move,' " Charles Wrana said. "But when you want to put a group home in their community, they have ordinances against group homes."

(Peters' solicitor had obtained a temporary court order Tuesday against a group home on Fawn Valley Drive. A hearing on the municipality's objections to the home is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. today before Washington County President Judge Thomas D. Gladden, who issued the temporary order.)

Diane nodded in agreement with her husband.

The Wranas and everyone else who could stand the cold waited at the police roadblock for a glimpse of their children or siblings. They waited for two hours. Then Laura Mooney, whose sister, Susan Riley, was being transferred, said she'd discovered the residents already had been moved. Welfare Department officials had spirited them out the center's back entrance.

The Wranas stood stunned. They walked slowly back toward the administration building, the same building where several scenes from the movie "Silence of the Lambs" were filmed. In the circular drive, Charles held his wife's pocketbook while she dug for the cellular phone. With her gloved finger, she dialed the number of Christine's floor.

"Hello. This is Diane Wrana. Is my daughter there?"

She waited a moment while a second person came to the phone. She repeated her question. Her daughter was indeed gone.

"How come we weren't informed she was leaving today?" Diane said. "Why weren't we told?"

Diane hung up. She has institutionalized both her daughters and twice survived cancer. She wondered out loud, "How much can one person take?"

The couple had planned to drive to Ebensburg to see Christine at her new home. But it meant getting their other car out of the shop, and Charles already had missed two days of teaching by spending his days at Western Center. They also thought a visit might upset their daughter even more.

So instead, they remained in the cold, staring at the state police and the people waiting to see family members who were already gone.

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