State closing Warm Springs Outdoor Therapeutic Program this week, but private group seeks way to continue service for troubled teens

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comAugust 29, 2013 

The state's Warm Springs Outdoor Therapeutic Program, which has served hundreds of Georgia's troubled teens during its 30 years, is closing this week, but a glimmer of hope for that population has developed.

The executive committee of a local not-for-profit organization, Twin Cedars Youth and Family Services, has decided to pursue submitting a proposal to take over the wilderness-themed program.

The committee's eight members unanimously approved executive director Mike Angstadt's request Tuesday, "contingent on the ability to receive a license and receive contracts," he said Thursday.

"When a public agency runs a program and a private agency takes over, licenses aren't transferable," Angstadt said.

The state's Office of Residential Child Care monitors, inspects and licenses programs such as the one in Warm Springs. Getting licensed can take 30 to 60 days, Angstadt said.

Twin Cedars also would need to obtain contracts from the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Division of Family and Children Services. They are the two state agencies that have made the referrals to place youth in the Warm Springs program, commonly called OTP.

In addition, Twin Cedars must learn from the state's Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, which has run OTP, the procedure to submit a proposal, said Angstadt, who was OTP's first director (1983-95). Twin Cedars is headquartered in LaGrange and has facilities in Columbus, Macon and Opelika.

State Rep. Debbie Bucker, D-Junction City, said Thursday that DBHDD commissioner Frank Berry plans to talk to Angstadt today about the proposal procedure.

Berry wasn't reached for comment, and DBHDD communications director Matt Carrothers didn't respond to the Ledger-Enquirer's voice mail or email Thursday.

Buckner, a Twin Cedars board member, attended Tuesday's executive committee meeting. She hopes officials can find a way to continue a program that helps wayward youth get back on track, as an alternative to or even before entering the juvenile justice system.

"There are very few preventative, early treatment programs available, in my opinion, that help youth deal with problems early on," she said, "and I'm hoping that this can be developed in such a way that we can do something to address that window of opportunity."

OTP's 600 acres were carved out of F.D. Roosevelt State Park off Ga. Highway 190 in Meriwether County, about 40 miles north of Columbus. If the property isn't used for a purpose at least similar to OTP, then ownership would revert to the Department of Natural Resources. Buckner, however, noted the DBHDD board didn't take formal action at its Aug. 19 meeting to close the program, "so that halted the transfer to DNR," and gives two months for a proposal to be submitted before the next scheduled meeting, Oct. 21.

"We're doing our due diligence, and we feel we may be able to serve children and families there," Angstadt said. "We feel guardedly optimistic."

DBHDD told OTP's 33 full-time and 10 part-time employees July 31 that it would close the program Aug. 31. Carrothers has said the residential program doesn't fit the department's revised mission to shift treatment from centralized institutions to facilities closer to home. OTP finished fiscal year 2013 with a deficit of $687,157 after expenditures of $2,335,699 and its July 31 enrollment of 18 youth was less than half its capacity of 44, he said.

OTP supporters say the program isn't a line item in the state budget anymore and has relied on $300,000 from DBHDD and $164 per day for each child referred by the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Division of Family and Children Services. The DJJ accounts for the majority of those referrals but inexplicably stopped them in June, effectively causing the program to run a deficit, OTP supporters say.

A year ago, the enrollment was 33, and there was a waiting list as recently as this winter, an OTP employee said on condition of anonymity. As recently as fiscal year 2011, the employee said, the program was self-supporting and returned $50,000 to the state, but DBHDD stopped allowing private-pay OTP clients.

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