While the Commonwealth of Virginia laid out its discharge plans and timeline Friday for the closure of the Southwestern Virginia Training Center, it did not stop 30 speakers from making emotional pleas to keep the Hillsville facility and another in Lynchburg open.
After touring the Southwestern Virginia Training Center (SWVTC) on Friday morning, members of the Special Joint Subcommittee to close the state’s training centers heard more than two hours of testimony Friday from those affected by the decision. SWVTC is scheduled to be closed by June 30, 2018 due to an agreement between the state and the Department of Justice.
Prior to an update on the training center closures, Senator Emmett Hanger from Augusta County said SWVTC has already downsized significantly from roughly 223 residents to 85 residents.
“What we have found at the other facilities is you reach a tipping point where it is simply no longer able to provide services, and we are close to that tipping point now,” Hanger said of the Hillsville campus.
Since 2010, the state’s training centers have seen their total population decrease from 1,198 to 335. According to information provided Friday, the centers would have a population of zero by 2029 if it had not taken action now. Many of the residents that remain are the most profoundly disabled.
Of the 87 individuals that remain at SWVTC, 17 individuals have identified homes, three additional individuals have providers ready to support them and families are making final decisions, and eight individuals are actively considering options. The facility’s census is expected to dwindle to 65 by June 30, 2017 and zero by June 2018. Providers to serve individuals with intensive medical and behavioral supports are in development.
Delegate Jeff Campbell of the 6th District Virginia House of Delegates set the tone prior to the public hearing when he addressed the subcommittee, calling the decision to close SWVTC an ill-conceived one. Many families will now be forced to travel across the entire state to see their loved ones. Campbell invited to drive any member of the subcommittee that wished to take the three-hour trip to Lee County where the region begins.
“The reason I make that point is because I can certainly appreciate the commission’s beautiful graphs and all these very comforting numbers that have been offered here today. But let’s not forget that behind those numbers and behind those colorful graphs are in actuality living, breathing human beings,” Campbell said. “Those individuals I saw in 2013 when I made my first trip here, I saw how profoundly disabled many of them were. How hard it was for many of them to function without a lot of assistance and without a lot of supports…The ones discharged are high functioning along the lines of my daughter (who has Asperger’s). And while we see the mortality rates here suggested that you are no more likely to die being discharged from a training center than you are in a training center, I think we still have a sample yet to come and once we see most of the profoundly disabled discharged from this facility I think you are going to see mortality rates rise significantly.”
Asking family members to drive seven or eight hours across the state is not a position Campbell said he is willing to accept. He also reminded the subcommittee of the large investment made in the 40-year-old Hillsville facility.
“Are we really willing to throw that away today? I ask you to consider that,” Campbell said. “Let’s slow the process down, take a second look at this and make sure we are doing the right thing, because once we close this facility and the property is sold, what happens if our plan is wrong? What happens to these individuals you met today and the challenges they face today? We are talking about the most vulnerable people in our society.”
Israel O’Quinn, also a member of the state’s House of Delegates, told the subcommittee the proposed closure at SWVTC has caused considerable angst among the residents and employees. “And some of the conversations I have had with some of the residents and employees have been absolutely gut-wrenching,” he said. “It will also be difficult to replace the jobs lost, and given our economic posture here in Southwest Virginia that is not something we can really afford.”
Carroll County Administrator Steven Truitt was the first of 30 citizens to speak during the public hearing. He said SWVTC was at one time the first choice of 220 people who needed assistance, and they are receiving fantastic care.
“When we started telling them it was going to close a bunch of them moved out, which was to be expected,” Truitt said. “And not only will these jobs be lost, they will be lost to us. The rest of the folks that were helping to create this environment will be unemployed. A 200-job hit is huge for us. I’d ask you to reconsider or slow down, and if you can’t do that, I’d ask you at least work with us to help find a way to continue to use this facility. We have a core of people that really do need help and the resources are not available at other places beside here.”
Carroll County supervisor Dr. Tom Littrell asked the subcommittee to consider three points. First, there is only a difference of about $15,000 in keeping residents at SWVTC instead of sending them into the community – a small difference to allow residents to maintain the best care possible.
Secondly, he said Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe ran as a jobs governor. It may not sound as exciting to announce the retention of 350 jobs as the creation of 350 new jobs, but it is just as important.
“The closure of SWVTC will eliminate about 350 jobs as of today and Carroll County hasn’t had that many new jobs in some time,” Littrell said. “The loss of these 350 jobs will be a huge economic blow to employees, their families and the community. It will take a long time to replace those jobs.”
And finally, he said the training center has an economic impact of $41 million annually for the region. Closing the center would be a devastating event, he said.
Charlotte Barkley, Executive Director of the Parent Advocacy and Advisory Council of Southwest Virginia, said 16 out of the 17 counties and all four cities of the region signed a resolution to keep SWVTC open, over 15,000 residents of Southwest Virginia signed a petition to keep it open, and hundreds of letters have been written to the Governor asking him to sign an executive order keep the training center open.
“So closing the Southwestern Virginia Training Center is against the wishes of the population of Southwest Virginia,” Barkley said.
Cindy Elliott’s sister has been a resident of SWVTC for more than 35 years. She is a 59-year-old woman with the mentality of a two or three year old, Elliott said.
“She acts out as any two- or three-year-old would and she has had excellent care here. In 2010 and 2011 when we were told, we couldn’t believe this could even be happening,” Elliott said. “I have been to Richmond and walked down the halls of all those senators and delegates and handed out brochures, nobody had the time to talk to me. I have yet to see but two homes I forcibly asked somebody to please take me and show me what they have to offer for my sister. I am worried about her because the homes I did see are close to the road. She is like a child and will run away from you in a heartbeat and be in the road. I hope if you know any of them that has voted against keeping this (center) open that you tell them I said when they lay their head on their pillow at night I hope the faces of these children they are throwing out into the community, I hope their faces (keep them awake at night). May God have mercy on anyone that does anything to not help us keep this (center) open.”
Eunice Jones said her daughter lived in a group home at one time. She ended up in handcuffs at sheriff’s office. Jones doesn’t want to think about her daughter having to go through something like that again.
“I’m praying that God will take my daughter before she has to leave here. I love her, but that’s how desperate I am,” Jones said. “I know she has been taken care of here. I thought I could die in peace knowing she could be here her whole life.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN