Pennsylvania Senate Committee to Hold Hearing on Polk State Center Closing

| September 24, 2019

HARRISBURG, Pa. (EYT) – A hearing will be held in the Pennsylvania Senate Tuesday, September 24, concerning the closing of the Polk State Center in Venango County and the White Haven State Center in Luzerne County.

According to a representative in State Senator Scott Hutchinson’s office, the hearing in front of the Human Services Committee will take place at 11:00 a.m. and include testimony from various stakeholders. No action is expected to be taken at the hearing.

AFSCME, which represents many of the workers at both facilities, is also planning a 1:30 p.m. rally at the Pennsylvania Capitol Complex in Harrisburg as well with members of AFSCME and other organizations on hand. AFSCME members from across the Commonwealth also plan to bus in, according to an AFSCME representative.

In mid-August, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) announced plans to close both Polk State Center, which employees over 700 people, and White Haven State Center by 2022. Both centers are intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In announcing the impending closure, DHS secretary Teressa Miller said it was part of greater plan to have residents of those centers more integrated with their communities.

“Over the past 120 years, thousands of Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities lived some or all their lives in Polk and White Haven State Centers,” Miller said in August. “We recognize their history and commend the work that center staff has done to support these individuals and their families, but we also must commit to a future that truly includes individuals with disabilities and offers them an everyday life as fully integrated members of our communities.

“Having an intellectual disability does not mean a person is incapable of making decisions, contributing to their community, or exploring lifelong learning opportunities. Community-based settings honor the inherent value of every person and empower individuals to choose the direction of their own lives.”

Local leaders, however, disagree with the decision.

“I think the governor (Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf) is dead wrong in his decision,” State Representative R. Lee James told exploreVenango when the closures were announced. “I had a meeting with a person who won’t be named about six months ago, and I was assured (Polk State Center) was not being considered for closure. Either that person was being lied to or that person didn’t tell me the truth. It was a complete shock (the announcement). It was not expected. I plan to do everything I can to get the decision reversed.”

Since the announced closure, there have been numerous rallies trying to save Polk Center in Venango County and a number of governmental bodies, including the Venango County Commissioners and the Oil City Council, have passed resolutions opposing the closing.

A rally was held on Labor Day in front of the Venango County Courthouse.

“Today we stand united,” Venango County Commissioner Albert “Chip” Abramovic told the gathering. “Today we stand as one. Today we stand unified. We stand unified for those families and those loved ones who are at Polk Center, those individuals who don’t have a voice, those individuals who you care for, those individuals that are part of our community.

“No one else can speak for them, but we can. We can be that one voice together, that one voice to lead a charge to save their home. That one voice, unified together, to make an impact for those individuals that can’t be heard and aren’t listened to.”

Senator Hutchinson also spoke at that rally telling the crowd, “I stand along with each and every one of you to say Polk Center is the home 200 fragile, vulnerable people. They deserve our utmost love and assistance. They deserve to stay in safe, secure, and familiar surroundings, served by caring professionals who each and every day go the extra mile in helping to provide quality lives, and they deserve to have their choice honored rather than forcing them into a choice by taking away their current home.”

Polk Borough Council President Jim Miller, owner of the Main Street Market in Polk, said at the time that Polk Borough and Polk Center are intertwined.

“ I don’t know how we’re going to be able to separate them,” Miller said at the Labor Day rally. “ It’s been there for over 100 years, and we’ve always been one. Now the governor says, we’re going to change that. I’ve got news for him: we’re going to fight this.”

That fight continued Sept. 9 when a public hearing, which is mandated by law whenever DHS announces its intentions to close a facility for individuals with intellectual disabilities, was held in Franklin.

At that hearing, Kristin Ahrens, the DHS’s Deputy Secretary of the Office of Developmental Programs (ODP) said the decision to close both Polk Center and White Have Center are “final” but that the feedback from the communities would help make the transition “as seamless and smooth as possible.”

“(DHS/ODP’s goal) is to provide services and supports so that all of the individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism can enjoy everyday lives in their communities, “ Ahrens said.

At the hearing, two Polk Center residents stated their thoughts.

“I’ve lived here for a long time, since I was 18,” the first resident stated, in a letter he wrote, read by one of his caretakers. “I like it here. I have my own nice room with my own television and pictures. In the community, there is too much crime to live there. I read about it in the newspaper, and it scares me. Here, I feel protected. I do like to visit places in the community to eat, shop, and go to fairs with wheelchair-accessible rides.”

The second speaker echoed many of the same sentiments, but this time through a speech he prepared through an assistive technology device with a robotic voice.

“When I was told about Polk Center closing, and that I would lose my family, and my home, I cried for days,” he said. “Polk Center has been my home for most of my life. My mom, dad, and sister, in heaven, wanted me to stay here and be in a place that felt like home and where I was safe. They were promised that I would. I’m sure they are heartbroken to know that promise was broken.

“It is not fair that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania did not ask me or even care about my choice of where I want to live. My right to chose and my voice has been taken away from me, and I do not want to live anywhere else other than Polk Center. This is my home. This is my choice, and I have a right to chose. Do not take away my family and my home. Do not take away my voice. Do not take away my rights.”

representatives from the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities (DD) Council and Disability Rights Pennsylvania, however, said they supported the decision to close Polk Center.

“The DD council envisions a Commonwealth comprised of inclusive communities where all people are valued,” Shirley Keith Knox, co-chairperson of the Pennsylvania DD Council said.

“The closure of Polk Center and White Haven continue the national trend toward community inclusion of people with disabilities,” Peri Jude Radecic from Disability rights Pennsylvania said.

Shelbie Stromyer, a local resident, RN, and representative of the Nurses of Pennsylvania, spoke out against the closure at the hearing

“This issue isn’t about the closure of these two centers, but is part of a much larger problem of underfunding quality of care in Pennsylvania,” Stromyer said. “I have found no research, and neither have other nurses in the state, that gives statistics to justify the removal of these individuals from their home, from their lifelong friends and caretakers who are highly trained and truly care for the people living at both centers.”

Aly Delp contributed to this story

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