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Vans whisk away 44 Western Center residents as families wait in vain

Thursday, April 13, 2000

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer


That was how 80-year-old Mary Conca of New Brighton felt about state officials moving 44 mentally retarded residents of Western Center in Canonsburg, including her 43-year-old son, to group homes and other institutions yesterday.

The gate is locked at the back of Western Center as state troopers keep guard yesterday. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette) 

"We are just too old. We cannot take it," said Conca, who showed up at the closing of Western Center wearing a sign: "Gov. Ridge has no heart. But he has managed to break the hearts of Western Center parents."

More than two dozen parents who showed up for the transfers found themselves playing a cat-and-mouse game with state officials from midmorning until the last resident was transported at 3:30 p.m.

Jay Pagni, spokesman for the state Department of Public Welfare, defended the elaborate maneuvers. He said the department's goal was to move the residents out with the least disruption.

"It is unsafe to have [mentally retarded residents] agitated by seeing mom and dad protesting," he said.

For the past two days, relatives have been barred from visiting their children and siblings who were awaiting transfers.

Yesterday, family members found that they couldn't even wave to them as vans carried them away from the place many had called home for decades.

    More on Western Center:

For 3 severely retarded men, move goes well to group home

Fast exit surprises a waiting family


When the parents stood at the front entrance, state officials diverted the vans to an exit along a gravel road that entered Southpointe, an adjoining residential and business park.

When protesting parents moved to the Southpointe exit, the vans were directed through the main entrance instead.

"It is one of the most reprehensible actions I have ever seen in America," said Daniel A. Torisky, president of the board of trustees at Western Center and a vehement opponent of the state's decision to close it.

State police guarded both entrances, sternly keeping parents at bay. At about 3 p.m., Torisky managed to do something that few other parents had a chance to do. He was able to wave at his son, Edward, who was whisked away in a van just before state police locked the gate for the day.

To Torisky and the several dozen parents who were at the facility yesterday, the behavior of state officials was typical of what they said they have been experiencing for years in their failed legal battles and frequent protests to keep Western Center open.

Tim Reeves, spokesman for Gov. Ridge, said some relatives may be upset by the closing, but he pointed out that the announcement came several years ago, impelled by a lawsuit and relentless lobbying by advocates for the handicapped who believe that group homes provide better care than institutions.

  Peter Demczk of West Newton holds a picture of his son, Max, in hopes of seeing him outside Western Center yesterday. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

When Western Center is finally closed, Pagni said, the property will be turned over to the state Department of General Services, which serves as a sort of real estate arm of the state.

The 304-acre site has 37 buildings and is a prime piece of Washington County real estate.

While yesterday's events were clearly painful to residents' loved ones, there were no incidents.

Torisky said he advised his 43-year-old son, who is autistic, to behave with dignity and vowed to continue the battle in the courts.

"We will go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court," said Torisky, whose group has several legal actions pending.

Pagni said 44 residents were moved to group homes operated by Allegheny Valley Schools, Gertrude A. Barber Center and McGuire Memorial Homes and to the state's Ebensburg Center in Cambria County.

Of the 12 remaining at Western Center, three are scheduled to go to a group home on Fawn Valley Drive in Peters that has not received final township approval. Washington County President Judge Thomas Gladden will hold a hearing on that home today. Pagni said a fourth person who was supposed to go to the home in Peters went instead to a facility in Erie.

Nine of the 12 mentally retarded persons who remained at Western Center yesterday can't be moved because of other pending litigation.

Allegheny County Orphans Court Judge Paul Zavarella will hear arguments Wednesday for five of those residents.

Pagni said about 40 staff members will remain to directly care for the dozen residents. He said they have all been moved to one central lodge.

In 1992, the state settled a federal lawsuit that resulted in Western Center residents beginning to move to group homes. Since then, more than 300 residents have been moved. The welfare department announced the closure of the Canonsburg facility in 1998.

Welfare Secretary Feather Houstoun and officials from the state Department of Mental Health/Mental Retardation made the decision to go ahead with the transfers this week, Pagni said.

He said one of the main reasons was that some professional staff at Western Center had already left, because of the dwindling population and the inevitability of its closing. With their departures, Pagni said, it was getting harder and harder to maintain the quality of care.

Yesterday's closing activities began at 8:30 a.m. when a parade of several dozen vans rolled into the facility. They were used to take Western Center's residents to their new homes, two at a time.

"Did you see that funeral procession come in?" asked Connie Cihil of Brackenridge, whose 47-year-old son, Richard, was moving to a group home after 35 years at Western Center.

"It was a sad day when we brought him here. It's a sad day today," said her husband, Chuck.

Staff writers John M.R. Bull and Lawrence Walsh contributed to this report.

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