The state is closing a residential program in Warm Springs, Ga., that helps wayward boys and girls ages 12-18 get back on track.
The 33 full-time staff members and 10 hourly employees of the Warm Springs Outdoor Therapeutic Program were informed last week that the facility located off Highway 190 will close Aug. 31.
State officials say the 19 children in the program will be better served in settings closer to home. But critics of the decision say no such settings exist beyond this unique program, which has served 700 to 1,000 youth in its 30-year history. The program features an accredited school for grades 6-12, wilderness training for life skills and clinical sessions for counseling.
The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities runs the program. It provides residential placement and services to youth with behavioral challenges who are in the custody of the Division of Family and Children Services and the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice. DFCS and DJJ pay DBHDD for the facility and services on a per diem basis.
Matt Carothers, the DBHDD's communications director, said in an email Monday that closing the program is consistent with the mission to "serve youth with behavioral challenges close to their own communities in settings that adequately serve their range of clinical needs."
Staff members in the program say they aren't allowed to speak to the media about this decision, but one agreed to speak to the Ledger-Enquirer to counter the state's decision.
Carothers listed the following additional factors that influenced the decision to close the program:
"For those children able to receive placement and other services from a non-secure, community based setting, it is important to provide those services in a facility as close to the child's home as possible," Carothers said. "In doing so, family involvement is promoted and school and social connections are better maintained."
The program staff member said the children who can't be placed in a private facility will end up back in a youth detention center if they are in the juvenile justice system or declared homeless as they live in a hotel paid for and supervised by DFCS.
The outdoor wilderness program isn't appropriate for youth who have a greater need for higher security and oversight, Carothers said.
The program staff member said there isn't any evidence of the program being dangerous.
The facility was at less than half of its capacity for most of fiscal year 2013. "This reduced population has resulted in significant operating losses," Carothers said.
The program staff member said the current enrollment of 19 is below half the capacity of 40 children because the state stopped making referrals June 25. A year ago, the enrollment was 33, and there was a waiting list as recently as this winter, the staff member said.
Carothers said he doesn't know the estimated amount of money closing the program would save the state. The staff member, however, said the program hasn't been a line item in the state budget for about seven years. The program's annual budget of about $2 million gets $300,000 from the DBHDD and the rest from the $164 per day for each child referred to by the DJJ and DFCS, the staff member said.
As recently as fiscal year 2011, the staff member said, the program was more than self-supporting and even returned $50,000 to the state, which then banned the program from accepting private-pay clients. This past fiscal year, the program ran a deficit of about $500,000 because of the reduced referrals, the staff member said.
The DBHDD "will work closely with local, regional and state-based agencies and private agencies to provide assistance to our employees' needs," Carothers said. "This support will include education preparation and testing, workforce training and more for all OTP employees who request help.
"DFCS and DJJ will ensure that the individual treatment needs of youth in the program are considered when determining their future services and treatment settings."
Tyler Jones, a former counselor and supervisor at the program, called the state shifting to community-based services "nonspeak for elimination of services."
"Residential facilities like OTP are being replaced with contract counseling centers to which parents bring their emotionally and behaviorally disturbed teens," said Jones, who worked for the program from 2009-12 and now is a journalist for an online newspaper in LaGrange. "What ends up happening is the vast majority don't show up for the appointments. Many parents don't have transportation, money or even control over their kids.
"Unlike community-based services, residential placements remove the youth from negative environments and peers."