Employees, state legislators kept in dark of state's decision to close Warm Springs Outdoor Therapeutic Program

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comAugust 11, 2013 

State officials contend closing the Warm Springs Outdoor Therapeutic Program is best for Georgia's troubled teens.

But since the Ledger-Enquirer reported the news last week that the program for wayward boys and girls is scheduled to close Aug. 31, the newspaper has learned the following pieces of information that paint a picture of secrecy and an effort to keep this controversial action quiet:

• An email among state administrators shows the decision to close the program was made more than one month before the staff was informed.

• State legislators say they also were kept in the dark about the decision.

• Staff members say they weren't notified when the state stopped allowing referrals to the program.

• Notice of the decision was given at an inopportune time: only four weeks before the closing date, during a month when it was too late for the program's teachers to find other education jobs before the school year started, and when the legislature is out of session and powerless to reverse the decision.

• No news release announced the decision to the public. A prepared statement of background information was sent to the Ledger-Enquirer only after the newspaper started asking questions about the decision.

• The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, which oversees the program, refused to let the Ledger-Enquirer tour the property and interview a former participant there Thursday, despite the program director granting permission.

• DBHDD fired the program director the next day.

"It has been nothing but cloak and dagger this entire time," said a program employee who agreed to be quoted only on condition of anonymity.

But as the clock ticks towards the program's last day, a possible compromise is in the works: The 30-year-old program's first director and a legislator are scheduled to meet today with DBHDD officials to find common ground and perhaps a reprieve.

Rationale for closure

This Warm Springs Outdoor Therapeutic program, commonly called OTP, is designed to get wayward boys and girls ages 12-18 back on track by giving them wilderness skills for life lessons, an accredited school for grades 6-12 and clinical sessions for counseling. The 33 full-time staff members and 10 hourly employees were informed July 31 that the mountaintop facility about 40 miles north of Columbus will close at the end of this month.

State officials say the 19 children in the residential program will be better served in settings closer to home and the program's enrollment is at less than half its capacity and running a deficit. Critics of the decision say no such settings exist beyond this unique program and the enrollment has declined because the state stopped allowing referrals, which led to the deficit.

Fait accompli

On June 25, the OTP staff was waiting for a probation officer to drive a juvenile to the program for admittance. Their arrival was late, which isn't unusual because visitors often get lost trying to find the property, up a gravel driveway off Ga. 190 in Meriwether County, where cellphone service is thin and the woods are thick.

A program employee called the officer to offer directions, but that wasn't the problem. The officer had just gotten a call from a Department of Juvenile Justice supervisor, who directed the officer to turn around and return the juvenile to the youth detention center. The reason, the employee said, was that OTP "no longer fit into their services."

On that same day, an email the Ledger-Enquirer has obtained shows the decision to close OTP already had been made.

DJJ deputy commissioner Carl Brown emailed his colleagues June 25 at 7:20 a.m. the following words:

"In preparation for the closing of OTP, DBHDD would like to discuss with DJJ a coordinated message regarding the closing of this program. … I should note that although we are participating in this request, the ultimate packaging of this closure should be owned by DBHDD."

Brown wasn't reached for comment.

DBHDD provides residential placement and services to youth with behavioral challenges who are in the custody of the DJJ and the Division of Family and Children Services. DJJ and DFCS pay DBHDD for the facility and services on a per diem basis.

Legislators in the dark

The two state legislators who represent the area where OTP is located, state Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, and state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, say DBHDD didn't notify them of the decision to close the program, which would have been protocol.

"I really resent finding out from constituents rather than getting notice from the department," Buckner said, then added wryly, "You think it would have been the behaviorally healthy thing to do."

"It all came to us as kind of a surprise," McKoon said. "… I'm a little puzzled as to the decision-making process, particularly not to consult with the legislators who represent the area."

McKoon noted the timing of the closure also is curious.

"My suspicion is that these decisions, when they get made outside of the (legislative) session and with very little notice, are to prevent the affected community from responding."

But some of the affected folks still are responding. As of Friday afternoon, 200 had joined an online petition asking Gov. Nathan Deal to intervene. The governor's spokesman, Brian Robinson, referred all questions about the program to DBHDD commissioner Frank Berry, who wasn't reached for comment. Robinson also didn't answer emailed questions asking for the governor's opinion about closing OTP.

McKoon and Buckner, however, haven't given up. McKoon wouldn't be specific, because he didn't want to undermine the effort, "but I'm committed to doing whatever I can to save OTP. It is a beneficial program and is certainly deserving of a full hearing and discussion of the issues without summarily being cut."

Buckner was more specific. A "private entity" called her and expressed interest in finding a way to sustain OTP, she said. Buckner wouldn't name that entity, but OTP's first director, Mike Angstadt, told the Ledger-Enquirer he represents that "private entity" now as executive director of Twin Cedars Youth and Family Services, based in LaGrange, Ga., and with offices in Columbus, Macon, Ga., and Opelika, Ala. In fact, Angstadt said, he and Buckner are scheduled to meet with DBHDD officials today to discuss such a possibility.

"First, we want to find out if the state, in any form or fashion, would keep it open," said Angstadt, who directed OTP from 1983-95, when it was called the Roosevelt Wilderness Camp. "Then, if they won't, would they bid it out and consider having a private not-for-profit do it?"

Director fired

The Ledger-Enquirer called OTP director Maggie Wooten last week for permission to meet a former OTP participant at the facility and tour the property to learn more about the program. Wooten gave her approval. But her supervisor Stephanie Pearson, clinical and quality director for DBHDD, refused to allow the interview and tour when the Ledger-Enquirer arrived Thursday, citing privacy concerns for the children. Told the Ledger-Enquirer wouldn't interview or photograph the children, Pearson wouldn't relent.

The next day, Pearson and two other DBHDD officials, plus a sheriff's deputy, served Wooten a termination letter and escorted her off the property.

"This is really getting hot," Wooten said, "and if they can squash some people and the momentum and defeat the energy of the staff and whatever resistance to the closure that we've got going here, I think that's part of this."

Point, counterpoint

Matt Carrothers, the DBHDD's communications director, said in an email last week 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."

Carrothers 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," Carrothers said. "In doing so, family involvement is promoted and school and social connections are better maintained."

The program employee 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, Carrothers said.

The employee said there isn't any evidence of the program being a security problem.

• 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," Carrothers said.

The employee 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.

Carrothers said he doesn't know the estimated amount of money closing the program would save the state. The program employee, 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 employee said.

As recently as fiscal year 2011, the employee 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 employee said.

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