Tricia Pursell

The Daily Item

NEW BERLIN — After nine years of providing help to troubled juveniles, an adolescent group home closed its doors on Thursday due to decreasing referrals.

County agencies were given a 30-day notice to remove their teens from the home and put them in other facilities or programs.

The group home helped up to 24 teens at a time and was staffed by as many as 30 employees at a time.

Luzerne County Juvenile Probation was once a large provider of youth for Holpen Village.

Judge Mark Ciavarella, who oversaw most of the cases with these adolescents, along with another Luzerne County judge, was charged last month with taking $2.6 million in payoffs to put juvenile offenders in lockups run by Pennsylvania Child Care LLC and a sister company.

Around the time that these kickbacks were being taken, the referrals to Holpen Village dried up.

"It's weird how we had such a great relationship with Luzerne County one minute, and then all of a sudden, the number of Luzerne County kids in our program dropped," said Marilyn Berry, program director.

Luzerne County Juvenile Probation case manager Joel Samuels declined to comment on the lawsuits, but was appreciative of the support they received over the years from Holpen.

"They took tough cases — kids that had no other place to go," he said. "Almost every kid that Holpen worked with did not return to the system."

The struggles at Holpen Village began in January.

"We received a complaint on Jan. 23 regarding staffing issues and unsafe conditions due to supervision," said Stacey Witalec, spokeswoman with Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW). "We went out and investigated and were able to determine that the provider had been laying off staff because of financial problems."

Officials at Holpen Village than agreed to put a plan in place to supervise the seven remaining residents, ranging in age from 11 to 19.

Later, the county decided to remove the children and relocate them, Witalec said. Officials at the group home decided to voluntarily close.

"It's heart-wrenching watching them (the youth) go," said assistant program director Deb Royer, of Middleburg. "These guys are at a very vulnerable age, and you really worry that they will make the right choices and stay on track."

Berry said the choice to close the program was excruciating. However, it all boiled down to increasing expenses and a decreasing flow of money.

"We have gotten no new referrals since November," she said. "We didn't have a single call."

The program had not increased its per diem rate for each child for more than four years, Berry said, because counties were struggling to make ends meet after a number of budget cuts by Gov. Ed Rendell. According to Berry, management — especially company owner and chief executive officer Russell Bowersox — continued to make sacrifices wherever possible to keep the program afloat.

"Mission" to help youth

Holpen Village Inc. opened in March 2000 by several families who felt a calling to help struggling adolescents.

"We saw a mission to help the youth, to do our part to keep them out of the prison system," said Berry. "We felt this was an avenue to help them out."

The program was first classified as a coed residential group home for ages 12 to 18, but a few years later, became an all-boys home. It was approved and governed by the Pennsylvania DPW.

Holpen Village promoted its program to each of the 67 counties within the commonwealth, addressing specifically the agencies of Children and Youth and Juvenile Probation. Youth stayed as short as one day for shelter, or as long as several years, depending on the case.

Within a year, the staff were already hearing success stories.

"I remember a boy who was flown from a program in Texas," said Berry. "No other programs in the state wanted to work with him because he was a flight risk. However, we worked hard to make him feel welcomed and important. He adjusted well and became one of our first program graduates."

"When I came to Holpen, I was young and pregnant and a high school dropout," said Heather Brenza, 26, who participated in the program for seven months. At Holpen, she earned her GED and received the tools she needed to find a job and keep it, and to be a good mother.

The youths also connected with people in the local community, especially at Hummels United Methodist Church in rural Middleburg.

"The guys really seemed to settle in at Hummels," said Pastor Carvel May. "We got them involved and active with others in the community. Relationships developed. Just recently, one of the boys stood up in front of 200 people at our church and shared his testimony, his hardships and faith."

Many adolescent group

homes struggling

Once a staple of youth placement in the state, group homes are becoming a casualty of state and county budget cuts.

"We've seen a lot of providers really struggle lately," said Montour County Children and Youth administrator Craig Patterson. "It's becoming the natural evolution of child welfare. They just don't have the resources to compete and survive."

"As a whole, agencies are encouraged anymore not to place kids," said Donna Allar, a caseworker supervisor with Centre County Children and Youth. "We have to totally exhaust every family resource and then every foster family resource."

PATH, formerly Bethesda Day Treatment Center, has transformed its Middleburg group home to a specialized drug and alcohol center.

"By specializing, it's one of those ways we recession-proofed ourselves," said Jerilyn Keen, president of PATH. "A lot of kids already serving there seemed to have this special focus." They added specialized counselors to add to the license they already received for the group home.

She said drug and alcohol issues are often synonymous with at-risk youth. "There are a lot that don't have drug and alcohol problems, but a majority of them experiment or self-medicate in order to deal with their issues or problems."

PATH has nine treatment centers throughout the state, and one group home, with a corporate office in Turbotville.

"I heard in the state that the focus has been away from residential placements," Keen said. "Counties are being encouraged to use other types of services. Funding for residential programs is usually pretty high. In this economy, counties are looking for ways to cut expenses."

According to Witalec with DPW, group homes are typically the first placements for adjudicated delinquents and are less expensive than institutions. They are not necessarily fading out, she said, but each child's unique circumstances determines where they go.

"The ultimate goal is to rehabilitate the kids and get them back out into the community, and hope they will become good citizens," she said.

Pennsylvania DPW reports there are 774 small group homes — with each holding less than 25 beds — in Pennsylvania.

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