Close to 20 families of Polk Center residents filled the side room of Main Street Market in Polk Borough on Tuesday to air their grievances following last week's stunning news the facility will close over a three-year period.

The informal gathering at the market was designed to be a forum for families and caregivers to discuss a plan of action moving forward.

Earlier in the day, about 150 family members attended a three-hour meeting at Polk Center where Kevin Dressler, the director of the state's Bureau of State Operated Facilities, explained the "transition process" for closing the center.

"There wasn't an elected official in Venango County that knew about it more than 15 minutes before they made the announcement," Jim Miller, the Polk Borough Council president and owner of the Main Street Market, said.

"We all feel like we've been blindsided," added Pam Dougherty, of McKean, whose brother has lived at Polk Center for 70 years.

The facility has provided homes for thousands of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities since it opened in 1897. Currently, there are nearly 200 residents and about 750 employees there.

While a closure had been bandied around for years, most recently in a state House bill introduced in 2017 as a means to save money, the unexpected announcement one week ago today by the Pennsylvania Department of Human services was made without advance notice.

Teresa Miller, the Department of Human Services secretary, said last week the move to shut down Polk and White Haven, two of the four similar institutions in the state, was prompted by a reflection of Gov. Tom Wolf's efforts to "serve more people in the community, reduce reliance on institutional care and improve access to home- and community-based services so every Pennsylvanian can live an everyday life."

'Like a one-two punch'

Meanwhile, all those at Tuesday's meeting at the market said they feel the announcement to close the facility was handled poorly.

"It's a show game," said Irene McCabe, president of the Polk Center Parents, Family and Friends organization.

"It can't be money," added Polk Mayor Dave Owens, who is retired from Polk Center.

Owens said that while he'd been at the center "they spent $50,000 on each of (a building's) bathrooms and turned around and closed it."

For her part, McCabe believes the planned closure to be purely political.

"The whole thing is very aggressive, it was like a one-two punch," she said.

McCabe said she believes the announcement of the closure has less to do with money, or wishing to see residents live better lives, and more to do with cutting off a larger national movement to prevent these institutions from closing before it can "pick up steam."

"It's an aggressive move to cut the discussion short," she said.

It is a 'community'

A main topic of discussion during the meeting revolved around what could have happened to make this transition better for residents, guardians and employees.

Jim Miller said he wished that parts of the center that are not in use could be rented or sold to other entities to begin an almost incubator-like process of transition from care home to whatever the campus' new capacity would be.

Jim Miller also said that while he is focused on the business aspect of Polk Center's closure, noting that he has "a terrific lunch business because of the state," he is more concerned about the residents of the center.

"They are part of our community, there's no two ways about it," Jim Miller said.

The room constantly swirled with the same question phrased in different ways - What is the state talking about when it says residents need to be in communities when they already live in one?

"It's pretty hard to untangle Polk Borough from Polk Center," Jim Miller said.

Jim Miller said it's impossible to go anywhere in the small community without running into a center resident, adding that most residents have ample opportunity to leave campus through center sponsored activities like going to Franklin to hear concerts or watch shows, or even taking a trip to Kennywood in Pittsburgh.

Owens said that at one time in his tenure, residents were offered a trip to Disney World that employees would take them on.

"What group home is going to be nicer than right here," Miller asked.

What's in a name

At one point in the meeting, Venango County Commissioner Albert Abramovic pointed out that many present had used the words "group home, institution and center" in place of one another and asked if the group could start calling the center "Polk Group Home."

"So this whole thing (closure of Polk Center) is about a word," one person asked, to which Abramovic said he believed to be so.

Abramovic briefly addressed the negative connotations surrounding the word "institution."

McCabe shared the sentiment in idea but not name, saying she likes the name institution because it incites order and routine, but said she does see the stigma surrounding the word and Polk Center itself.

She urged people to open their minds and look at what the center really is as opposed to what it was.

"This is not Pennhurst 1960, it's Polk Center 2019," she said.

Jim Miller, who said he remembers the time when the center housed thousands of residents, agreed.

"Back then probably about 90% of the people didn't need to be there, but now it's like a pendulum, it's swung from one extreme to the other," he said.

Backup plans

McCabe said her organization is currently focusing on gathering "taste test cases" to present to an attorney so an injunction can be filed.

"We need 12 solid cases, ones that are really vulnerable and show that any movement away from Polk would be dangerous," McCabe told the crowd.

McCabe said an injunction filed in Chicago recently kept an institution open for three years, long enough for new legislation to be written and the institution to be saved.

"We will need your commitment," McCabe said.

Abramovic said that if an injunction is filed, a period of discovery could shed light on the state's actual motive for the closing.

McCabe urged those assembled to remember they are not alone in the situation.

"There are hundreds, thousands of you out here," she said.