FRANKLIN, Pa. — In September, hundreds of angry state workers and concerned family members packed a church auditorium in rural Venango County, less than 100 miles north of Pittsburgh.
The protesters, many dressed in red shirts that read “Polk Center Strong,” each held a sign with a different set of initials representing the 306 people who live in two Pennsylvania state centers for the intellectually and physically disabled.
Those facilities will close by 2022, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration announced in mid-August.
Most of the people who attended the mandated hearing did so to defend the Polk State Center, which is home to roughly 195 of the soon-to-be-displaced residents. For nearly five hours, they offered condemnation, rebuttals, and pleas to a panel of visiting Harrisburg officials.
But from the start, the outcome was clear — a representative from the state Department of Human Services began by saying the decision was final.
These kinds of facilities have a long and controversial history, some dating back to the 19th century. For years they held people with all sorts of disabilities, many of whom should never have been institutionalized in the first place.
Decades of research and court rulings have stopped the flow of people into state-run centers like Polk and White Haven in northeast Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, the two facilities slated for closure.
The August announcement was an end that many who work and live near the facilities have felt could be coming for a long time.
But that didn’t make it any less of a shock — one that the centers’ advocates are fighting like hell to stop.
“I think we have a very good chance” to prevent the centers’ closure, Tammy Luce, president of the local union representing Polk employees, said.
“And if not, we’re going to try everything we possibly can.”
Freedom is a 3 a.m. burrito
In all, 720 people still live in the four remaining state centers — just 5 percent of the total from 50 years ago.
The average age of a resident is 62, while the average stay is 45 years.
Since 2014, just 49 people have been admitted to the state system of residential facilities, according to the Department of Human Services.
To enter a center, individuals must meet stringent requirements, which the department says come from a combination of state statutes, as well as a U.S. Supreme Court legal precedent.
Specifically, the country’s high court ruled in 1999 that the institutionalization of people “who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions” that they can’t live with the rest of society.
The court also found that “confinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals,” including everything from “family relations,” “economic independence,” to “educational advancement.”
Using the Americans with Disabilities Act as a basis, the court found that institutionalization was discriminatory, reinforcing the push to keep individuals in the community and out of state centers.
Jessica Benham, a disability advocate for the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, says the “burrito test” is a simplified way to think about the difference between community care and a state facility.
“Basically, if you wake up at 3 a.m. and you aren’t able to go into a gas station, get a frozen burrito, and microwave it, you’re living in an institution,” Benham told the Capital-Star.
(Editor’s note: The Capital-Star spoke to Benham before she announced her intention to run for a seat in the Pennsylvania House.)
All people, Benham argued, should have the freedom to get a late-night burrito — even if the decision could lead to some regrets.
“Abled people make bad decisions all the time, and we give them the respect and freedom to let them grow and learn from their mistakes,” she said. What comes with living in a community setting is “the freedom to make good choices, but also the freedom to make mistakes and to learn from them.”
But workers at the institutions, as well as residents, argue the centers already offer a community and a life full of opportunities. Residents can work at on-site jobs, from calling bingo to tending plants in a greenhouse. They also have a community in the staff they interact with or the town residents around them.
For some, the stakes are even higher than removing a family member from a comfortable life. Dana Sabo was overcome with emotion at the public hearing in Franklin, where she shared the story of her brother Donnie, who is autistic.
Dana said he could become violent. Donnie had tried 40 different group homes, none of which worked.
The last straw came when one home called the police during a violent outburst. Donnie was put in a padded cell until his family could figure out what to do with him.
It was only then, facing legal trouble, that the Sabos were told Donnie could live at a state center.
That was 30 years ago, and Donnie has lived at the Polk center since. He’s thrived there, Dana said, and swam in the Special Olympics.
But most importantly, Sabo said, with 24-hour care on call at all times, “he’s safe.”
What happens to the centers’ 300-plus residents
Questions about the quality of care are also a sticking point for the unions that represent the majority of Polk and White Haven’s combined 1,173 employees. They include locals of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees as well as Service Employees International Union.
If the facilities close as planned, the 300-plus residents will either be transferred to one of the two remaining state centers or into private care. Their new care could come in a group home, or by hiring in-home aides with state assistance. The group homes would be run by either a nonprofit or for-profit company.
Luce, president of AFSCME Local 1050 at Polk, pointed to high staff turnover in private care. Industry studies have found that a little more than four out of five direct care workers leave their jobs within a year.
Workers have cited low pay, long hours, and the difficulty of the job as reasons for the high churn. These conditions have also made the home-care industry a top battleground for union organizing, with mixed success.
With workers steadily employed by the state, Luce argued, people with disabilities would find better care.
“We have consistency. We have people that work at White Haven and Polk that retire from there,” Luce told the Capital-Star after a Harrisburg rally in late September. “The group homes, they have a huge turnover rate because they can’t pay enough. So people come in there [and] there is no consistency whatsoever.”
In the past five years, the state has shuttered one residential center: a facility located in Hamburg — about 20 miles north of Reading — in 2018. Seventy-four residents were transitioned to new homes.
Eleven of those people have died in the 36 months since Hamburg closed, including one in the care of a provider the state Department of Human Services deemed “negligent.” The provider was cited, forced to take corrective action, and the case was referred to law enforcement.
Kristin Ahrens, DHS’ director of developmental programs, told the Capital-Star the department is taking the three years of lead time to develop individualized plans for every resident who will be transferred.
Aherns said those plans will ensure residents, some of whom were committed in the 1940s, will not only be cared for but could also provide opportunity to build new connections with those they still have outside the state centers.
“With Hamburg, we were able to move the majority of people closer to family,” Aherns told the Capital-Star. “So we have stories about you know, people who didn’t have necessarily much of a relationship with a family member who now have that, who are now enjoying holidays with a family member.”
A high price tag for the state — and communities
The Wolf administration has justified the planned shutdowns, in part, by pointing to the fiscal situation.
The state centers’ populations may have dwindled, leaving a lot of extra capacity, but costs to maintain the facilities are high. The price tag is more than $400,000 per resident of Polk and White Haven, according to the administration.
But business groups in those communities, including chambers of commerce and economic development corporations, fear the impact the closures will have on local economies.
At the September hearing in Franklin, one business official, Randy Seitz of the Penn-Northwest Development Corporation, estimated the Polk center and its workers have an annual economic impact of $134 million.
The closures would also mean these areas will lose hundreds of direct jobs, most of which are union, at the facilities.
The impact could be particularly acute in Polk itself — a tiny borough of 190 households. Seventeen percent of them have at least one member who works at the center, according to borough council president Jim Miller.
“This, economically, is going to kill Venango County,” Miller said during the hearing.
The Department of Human Services’ Ahrens pointed to Hamburg, where every state employee who wanted a new state job was guaranteed one. The same promise will apply to both Polk and White Haven.
But the September hearing was occasionally ugly, as constituents shouted down advocates speaking in favor of closure — including some with disabilities — and laid into the department for little notice of the announcement.
“I had actually met with a member of the Department of Human Services six months before [the August announcement], and was promised that Polk was not on the target list for closure,” Rep. R. Lee James, R-Venango, told the Capital-Star during the Franklin meeting.
Lawmakers from both parties who represent the areas near the centers have sprung into action.
Family members of center residents are also considering legal action.
At the same time, others, including Venango County Commissioner Chip Abramovic, hope to push the administration to take a stance on using the two sites for something new — from drug rehab to corrections.
“No matter what happens with the decision, we still need to figure out a way of revitalization of that facility working with our state elected officials,” Abramovic said.