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Western Center will be staffed until April 28

Sunday, April 16, 2000

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Western Center opened in 1962 in Canonsburg, at the former site of a home for delinquent youth, the state cared for more than 13,000 mentally retarded residents in state institutions.

As Western prepares to close, that number is 2,100 and falling, said Jay Pagni, spokesman for the state Department of Public Welfare. At the same time, about 15,000 mentally retarded persons are living in group homes across the state, and that number continues to grow.

"The idea that Western Center is going to reopen and that the population of institutionalized persons is going to go up is just folly," Mark J. Murphy, deputy executive director of the Disabilities Law Project, said Friday.

His law project filed the lawsuit in 1989 that set into motion what finally happened Wednesday -- when 56 residents were bused out of the center, 44 of them to group homes.

"We think that it is long overdue and we think that people who left in the past couple days will have an increased quality of life in the community," said Murphy.

Like others who pushed for the closing of Western, Murphy was displeased with the state's decision to transfer 16 residents out of Western to Ebensburg Center in Cambria County, where they will live temporarily until they are moved into group homes.

"We wish they had done it differently," Murphy said.

With stone-faced state police guarding the gates, the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare began the process of closing the 38-year-old institution Wednesday. Pagni said April 28 is expected to be the last day that the center is staffed.

On Thursday, Washington County President Judge Thomas Gladden cleared the way for four mentally retarded residents to be moved to a group home in Peters. The judge dissolved an injunction against the Gertrude A. Barber Center and required the organization to apply for proper zoning in Peters.

Pagni said the remaining eight residents would be moved out as soon as legal challenges are lifted.

Last week, more than 200 employees were furloughed from Western Center. Pagni said state employment assistance program staffers are there to talk to employees. Some may have bargaining rights that would enable them to transfer to other state centers.

Last week's events appear to be the final blows to the cause of several dozen parents who have challenged the state's efforts to close Western Center and transfer its residents to group homes.

But Daniel Torisky, president of Western Center's board of trustees and leader of the parents' group, said the parents will fight on, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, to challenge the methods that the state is using to transfer the patients.

One day after the mass transfers at Western, Torisky's group was buoyed by a Venango County judge's ruling in a case involving the transfer of a mentally retarded resident from Polk Center, another state institution for the mentally retarded.

Common Pleas Judge H. William White ruled Thursday that the state welfare department must hold a hearing before transferring a mentally retarded resident out of Polk Center against her family's wishes.

"We are reviewing the decision to determine how it can be applied to our case," Torisky told reporters at a press conference.

Pagni said the state will appeal White's decision. Unless it is affirmed by an appeals court, it is unlikely to have a major impact on the dispute at Western.

The parents' protests, noisy and litigious, have not been able to stop the trend toward moving the mentally retarded out of institutions or the methods used by the state to make it happen.

In 1985, Western Center had 650 residents. Last week, only 56 residents were living at the center when the final moves began.

As the population dwindles, the cost of keeping a mentally retarded person at Western Center has skyrocketed to $272,000 a year, or about $745 per day. Pagni said the state paid between $66,000 and $80,000 a year to put the same person in a group home.

Torisky, a member of the board at Western Center for 25 years, disputes the state's figures, saying they don't tell the whole story. Until its population was transferred out, he said Western was "the best bargain" in the state system.

The parents' group also questions whether the quality of care their loved ones will receive will be better in a group home.

They claim that transfers out of Western have resulted in cases of abuse, neglect, abandonment and unexplained deaths. And they are eagerly awaiting a full report from state Auditor General Bob Casey's office regarding abuse in group homes.

In January 1999, Casey's office issued a preliminary report that showed that mentally retarded people were abused more often in group homes than they were in Western Center.

On Wednesday, several dozen parents stood helplessly behind police barricades at Western Center as their mentally retarded children who had lived there for decades were driven away.

The parents were not allowed to talk with their children. State officials took elaborate precautions to move the vans through entrances where no parents stood.

Some of those who were moved are profoundly retarded, with mental capacities of small children or even toddlers.

"Western Center is the last resort for the mentally retarded that no private provider wanted," said Jim Mooney of Dormont whose wife, Laura, is president of the Western Center parents' group.

With the closing of Western, there are only seven centers for the mentally retarded in Pennsylvania. They are at Polk in Venango County; Ebensburg, with centers in Cambria County and Altoona; the Hamburg Center in Berks County; Selinsgrove in Snyder County; White Haven in Luzerne County; and a mental retardation unit at Mayview State Hospital.

Pagni said the state had no immediate plans to close those centers.

Western Center is located at the site of the former Pennsylvania Reform School at Morganza, a facility for delinquent youths in Washington County.

It has 37 buildings and sits on 304 acres of prime real estate that abuts Southpointe, a fast-growing business and residential development near the Allegheny County line.

Pagni said that once the buildings are mothballed, the property will be turned over to the state's General Services Administration, which acts as a sort of real estate arm of state government.

Like most state institutions for the handicapped, Western Center had its share of allegations of physical abuse and inadequate care, failed state inspections.

The state froze admissions in 1989, the same year it sent an undercover investigator into the facility who reported that staff members abused patients.

Torisky contended, "there has not been a life or safety issue at Western Center since 1987." But that wasn't the way others saw it.

In 1989, Murphy and his Disabilities Law Project filed a lawsuit on behalf of all Western Center residents alleging that they lived in substandard conditions that violated their rights. The suit was filed on behalf of Pennsylvania Protection and Advocacy Inc., Allegheny County and the Pennsylvania chapters of the Association of Retarded Citizens, both huge advocacy groups for the retarded.

In 1992, the state welfare department and the disabilities project entered into a settlement agreement. The agreement mandated that each resident of Western Center receive an individual determination as to whether placement in a group home would be appropriate.

Eventually, over the objections of some parents, officials decided that all residents of Western Center could be placed in group homes.

In January 1998, Feather Houstoun, secretary of the state welfare department, announced that Western Center would close by June 30, 1999. But it didn't.

When state officials tried to move several patients Jan. 21, the process was disrupted. Family members and guardians staged a protest, wrapping their arms around their relatives to stop the discharges.

Last week, state officials took no chances. They barred parents from visiting their loved ones before and during the move. They posted state police at entrances to keep the parents away.

When Richard Kuppleweiser, executive director of Western Center, told reporters at a news briefing Wednesday that residents were looking forward to the move, his statement prompted catcalls from the angry parents.

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