Highfields gets OK to reopen youth residential program

Highfields Inc.'s embattled youth residential program will reopen soon with a six-month provisional state license. The state on Wednesday approved the facility's corrective action plan, which has been in development since allegations of abuse surfaced in February. Among changes put forth:

  • More training and screening of staff.
  • Increased staff-to-resident ratio.
  • Mandated logging of all shift incidents by staff before they can leave for the day.

Key among the changes will be making sure that all staff understand that the program is not a boot camp where kids can be roughed up, said Keith Groty, chairman of the Highfields board of directors. "We need to make sure they have the skills and competency to implement our new plan," he said. "We can't and don't want to risk this occurring again." Groty said it's possible that not all of the 71 workers laid off in February will meet the center's new training and aptitude requirements. Those who are allowed to return will be given a full week of training before the program reopens, which Groty said wouldn't be for at least a few weeks. "We have some logistical things to do first," he said.

The residential program at the Onondaga-based home for juvenile offenders has been closed since Feb. 22, a few days after the state and Ingham County judges pulled 33 youths from it. Among the substantiated charges were that a Highfields worker shoved a boy's face into the snow after the 15-year-old refused to shovel a sidewalk; another counselor allowed some boys to haze a newcomer by pelting him with shaving cream cans, spoiled milk, shampoo and other personal care products while in the shower; and two other counselors marched an angry boy around outside in the cold without a coat or shoes.

The state earlier this month began proceedings to revoke the facility's license unless administrators developed a suitable corrective action plan addressing safety, communication and staff training.

Plan 'impressive'
Miriam Bullock, division director of the state Department of Human Services' Office of Children and Adult Licensing, said Wednesday that Highfields' corrective action plan was among the best efforts she's seen. "It was quite impressive really, the seriousness with which they addressed the issues and the detail they put into it," Bullock said. "It obviously took a long time. They dissected the incidents and looked at what needed to be done." Bullock said she also was pleased with the hiring this week of Larry Miesner, an adjunct criminal justice professor at Michigan State University and former chief of Michigan's Bureau of Juvenile Justice, on a four-month contract as interim president and chief executive officer. "An organization's willingness to replace at the top is usually a sign that things can turn around," Bullock said.

Six-month window
The provisional license means that Highfields has a six-month window to show the state it has made needed changes. If no more violations are found, the center will get a regular two-year license. The state allows up to four, six-month provisional licenses, Bullock said. Steve Swart, who has worked as a residential counselor at Highfields since 2003, said he's eager to get back to work. "I really miss working with the kids," said Swart, 32. "It's a shame what ended up happening - with it shutting down. There were some things some people did wrong, but overall a lot of good things were happening for the kids." Still, Swart said, he welcomes any changes that can better the program. "There's always room to improve," he said. "This will just be an opportunity for us to do even better work."

Stacey Range
18 May 2006


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