Highfields gets OK to reopen youth
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
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.
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."
18 May 2006