Ebensburg center

The state will be monitoring the population level at the state center in Ebensburg while determining its future.

HARRISBURG – The state will close Polk and White Haven state centers, two of the four state centers providing care for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said there are no plans to close the final two state centers — in Ebensburg, Cambria County and Selinsgrove, Snyder County — but the state will be monitoring the population levels at those facilities while determining their future.

The state plans to close Polk and White Haven by 2022, Miller said.

Miller said the move is part of a decades-long process of moving away from providing care for individuals in institutions and moving them into community-based settings like group homes.

“This is an incredible moment in our history in Pennsylvania,” Miller said. “Over the past 120 years, thousands of Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities lived some or all their lives in Polk and White Haven state centers. We recognize their history and commend the work that center staff have 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.”

In the 1960s, the state had 23 state centers that were home to 13,000 people. Today, there are only about 700 people in the four centers — and half that number will be moved into the community under the state’s plan. About 1,173 state employees who work at the Polk and White Haven State Centers will lose their jobs.

Population of state centers

  • Polk State Center, Venango County – 194 residents;
  • White Haven State Center, Luzerne County – 112 residents;
  • Ebensburg State Center, Cambria County – 200 residents;
  • Selinsgrove State Center, Snyder County – 208 residents.

About 40,000 Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities supported by state programs live in community-based settings in Pennsylvania, according to the Department of Human Services.

Advocates who’ve been lobbying to close the state institution cheered the move, noting that never before has the state moved to close two institutions at once.

The state most recently closed the Hamburg state center in 2018.

“From the closing of these two large state centers, we are reminded again and again, that people with disabilities can live in their community, and, in fact, flourish when given the supports and opportunities to do so,” said Sherri Landis, executive director of The Arc of Pennsylvania. “Individuals with disabilities deserve the opportunity to experience life in their community, just like anyone else.”

Not everyone is pleased though.

The state House human services committee held a hearing in June in which family members of people living in the state centers testified that they hope the facilities remain open.

State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks County, is chairman of the human services committee. He said that many of the people living in the state centers have been there for decades and their relatives don’t want them moved.

“They feel like their loved ones like it there, they are safe there and they don’t want them put in the community,” DiGirolamo said.

Dave Fillman, executive director of AFSCME Council 13, which represents workers in the state centers, said the announcement was unexpected and “unfortunate,” both for employees and the residents of the state centers.

“For many of these people, the people who work there are like a second family,” he said.

DiGirolamo said the state’s move makes it seem inevitable that the remaining two state centers will be shuttered sooner or later.

The concerns are bipartisan. 

“My radar screen has lit up like a pinball machine now that the plan to close Polk State Center in Venango County and White Haven State Center in Luzerne County has been revealed,” said state Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria County.  “It’s an early warning system for those of us who were – and would again be – deeply disturbed at the prospect of losing the Ebensburg State Center forever.”

There are 705 employees at Ebcnsburg State Center and 779 employees at Selinsgrove State Center, said Erin James, a Department of Human Services spokeswoman.

Peri Jude Radecic, CEO of Disability Rights Pennsylvania, said there is ample evidence that even people with complex cases can receive appropriate care in community settings, often closer to home than they would be living in institutions.

Miller said when the center in Hamburg closed, 57 percent of the residents ended up living in community settings closer to family.

Radecic said advocates hope the state follows through and closes the remaining two facilities. Legislation to do just that – setting up a five-year timeline to shutter all of the state centers was introduced in the General Assembly in 2017. The measure never got out of committee and has not been reintroduced in this session yet, she said.

Miller said a number of factors were considered when the state picked Polk and White Haven to close, including expected repair costs at those facilities. If the facilities remain open, the state will have to spend $24 million on major renovations, she said.

Miller said 13 states have completely deinstitutionalized care of individuals with mental retardation.

That includes Oregon, a state where Miller worked before becoming Pennsylvania’s Human Services secretary, which closed its institutions more than a decade ago, Radecic said.

Miller said the state will work to try to help displaced state center employees find other state jobs or employment elsewhere.

That pledge rings a little hollow, Fillman said. 

“It’s easy to say that,” he said. “But, particularly with Polk, there’s not a heck of a lot else up there. Is someone from Polk going to want to move to Philadelphia to work? I don’t think so.”

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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