BY KIRK DOUGAL

Times Bulletin Editor

kdougal@timesbulletin.com

VAN WERT - Starr Commonwealth announced Thursday evening they are suspending operations in Van Wert. All students will be moved from the campus by July 1 of this year.

"We have tried for two years or longer to get additional placements," said Jon Rhoades, a member of the Starr Commonwealth Board of Trustees. "It is strictly a matter that we can't get the state or private people to put enough kids into the system at Van Wert to make it economically feasible."

The problem Rhoades referred to involves the number of students on the residential care campus. States around the country have been promoting ways to help children without placing them in facilities like those in Van Wert. As an example, the number of children in residential care programs around the country from 2001 to 2009 was reduced by 42 percent. Other states, like Michigan where Starr Commonwealth has other facilities, have agreed to a consent decrees that state students can not be sent to a facility more than 75 miles from their home. That means students from Detroit can not be sent to the Starr Commonwealth in Albion, Michigan. A lot of those changes have come about because of child advocacy groups who have filed lawsuits to keep the students in community-based programs and not residential systems.

Rhoades said examining the numbers reveals an even steeper decline. He pointed out that in the past, Starr Commonwealth was usually able to work with students for at least a year. Now stays are generally capped at six months. That means it would take twice as many students going through the system to maintain the previous census levels at a time when facilities are not even receiving what they had in prior years.

"This is not a decision being made lightly," said Martin L. Mitchell, President and CEO of Starr Commonwealth. "Because of economic conditions in Ohio and the country, the Van Wert campus has experienced ongoing difficulties maintaining full enrollment in programs."

The loss in revenues to Starr Commonwealth was reportedly into the millions of dollars and they responded by attempting to cut expenses in order to keep pace. For instance, the Van Wert facility employed approximately 60 people as recently as a couple of years ago but is now down to around 35 employees on campus. With no indication the placement and economic climates were going to change anytime soon, the trustees decided it was necessary to suspend operations.

The Starr staff is working with referral agents to find placements for the boys and girls currently from the Van Wert residential program. The current plan is to relocate the Montcalm School for Girls to the Albion campus. Most of the boys will be able to finish their stays in Van Wert, however, the rest will either be sent to other facilities, like Starr Columbus, or be returned to their home base.

Rhoades said the issues at Starr Commonwealth are not isolated to them. During the time when the trustees were struggling with this decision, they spoke with another Michigan residential group of about the same size. They have already closed four of their facilities.

"It really saddens me because if you don't get these kids at this age, we may be seeing them again and the next time may be in jail," said Rhoades. "There doesn't seem to be much drive to try to get funds for these kids. The (state) budgets are definitely a factor."

"Starr Commonwealth has been committed to the well-being of youth and families and has provided health, hope and healing to thousands of boys and girls at the Van Wert campus since its founding in 1951. We will continue to evaluate feasibility with the hope of offering programming from Van Wert as conditions change," said Kelley Jones, Executive Director of Starr Van Wert and Montcalm School for Girls. "We are proud of our involvement in the community and the support we have received from donors, local members of the Starr Board of Trustees and the Voluntary Advisory Board. We especially value and appreciate the sincere dedication of our staff that serve our mission and continue to focus on the treatment needs of our students during this difficult time."

Officials stressed this action is only a suspension of program services at the Van Wert facility. Starr Commonwealth officials are actively trying to work on new programs that are not as heavily residential and there is also the possibility that as state budgets improve, the trend away from residential facilities may reverse and the facility could be put back into use.