State bill would close Pa. centers for disabled

As the mother of a young man who lives with autism and cognitive impairment, Susan Jennings understandably wants what is best for him.

But the Mansfield resident fears pending legislation could bring an end to the care that her son, Joey, 25, is now receiving at a state center in Luzerne County.

A state House bill would close the five state centers, which house people with disabilities.

That would mean Joey and many others would end up in group homes or elsewhere where they would fail to receive the proper attention and care they need, according to Jennings.

“Joey experienced trauma, neglect, anxiety and fear before finding the correct level of care at White Haven Center. And we cannot accept these special centers being pulled out of the state’s service network and eliminated for all time, when the care they provide is so vitally needed,” Jennings said.

Jennings is a White Haven representative of Keeping Individuals with Intellectual disabilities Safe, an organization of families and friends of state development center residents.

She said state centers provide the many on-site services and expert care people such as her son vitally need.

Others with loved one in state centers are as concerned as Jennings that they will close.

Tom Kashatus, of Glen Lyon, has a daughter who has been housed at White Haven for 37 years.

There, she receives a “continuity of care” from professional staff, he said.

“Our concerns are when we are gone, what is going to happen?” Kashatus, a retired state correction officer, said. “Our daughter has been taken care of by the same people for years.”

His daughter’s child, he noted, lived in five group homes before finally being admitted to White Haven.

Jennings noted that people facing mental and/or physical challenges are entitled by federal law to appropriate and safe levels of care. Community providers, such as group homes are particularly challenged to meet their special needs.

She feels that projected cost savings in closing the state centers are being overstated.

State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, who introduced the legislation that would result in their closures, said it’s not about dollars and cents.

“My interest is not driven by economics,” he said. “The goal is not to save money.”

He explained that in considering placement of individuals in state centers, there is simply not a one-size-fits-all formula.

“I am not convinced that all can live in group homes, but I also believe there are some who are higher functioning who can live in group homes,” he said. “Introducing this bill can lead to good discussion.”

Dialogue and public hearings would certainly precede any closures, he added.

Benninghoff said he doesn’t see his bill getting passed as early as this fall when the House is back in session.

But that doesn’t seem to alleviate the fears of people with loved ones in state centers.

Trudy Sheetz, of Lancaster County, said the Selinsgrove Center has been home for many years to her 64-year-old brother, who is severely challenged intellectually and suffers from seizures.

“My brother relies on someone else to meet his needs every day. Selinsgrove was set up to meet the needs of people like him,” said Sheetz, a retired licensed practical nurse. “These centers also have 24-hour nurses on staff. They have psychologists and social workers and doctors there. Many of these employees have been there for many years. They know the people there.”

Jennings, for her part, plans to lead a delegation next month to Harrisburg to have their concerns heard by lawmakers.

Among the supporters of the bill is state Rep. Jeff Wheeland, R-Loyalsock Township.

“Maybe some (centers) do have to be closed, but you can’t just do it with the swipe of a pen,” he said. “We have to have hearings with advanced notification.”

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