Potomac center parents disappointed in management - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Potomac center parents disappointed in management

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By MARLA PISCIOTTA

For The State Journal

Allegations of physical and sexual abuse led to the removal of 24 children from the Potomac Center Jan. 16-17. Nearly two months later the investigation continues. 

West Virginia State Police indicated on Jan. 31 that as many as 12 children, ages 7 to 17, were victims of abuse, and 10 potential suspects have been identified.

One parent from Sissonville hired the Bell Law Firm in Charleston as a legal representative.

Harry Bell, owner of the firm and Andy Paternostro, an attorney at the firm, both talked about their client's child, the rights, the ongoing investigation and actions by the Potomac Center management.

"My client's child was at the center from July 2013 through January 2014 when the children were removed," said Paternostro. "My client received a phone call and was told, ‘hey you've got to get your child out of here.' 

"They picked their child up at 2 a.m. on the 17th of January."

Paternostro and Bell said the parents were told there had been an internal investigation into physical and sexual abuse at the center.

"My client's child lived in one of the homes where the children were removed," Paternostro said.

Both lawyers said from what they can determine, all 12 children, as identified by the State Police investigation, weren't all abused at the same time.

"Therefore there had to be 11 other incidents," Paternostro said. "I assume each one should have been investigated and reported. 

"I would think there was an obligation of the management to notify the families. Surely there would be 11 other internal reports."

Paternostro said the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources should have known about each of those 11 internal reports.  

Bell said he's been told that the 12th abuse case led to the firing of one employee. He said he didn't know who or any specifics on the firing.

"When the 12th alleged abuse incident occurred the (center) did an internal investigation and then called the DHHR," Bell said. "The parents weren't notified until after the investigation by the DHHR. That is when the children were removed from the homes," said Bell.

Bell said his client's child is non-verbal and cannot explain what happened.

The family is consulting medical and psychological experts to check their child. Bell said his client doesn't know if there is a long-term effect on what happened to his child.

"There is no dispute that (the center has) issues with employees," Paternostro said. "We want to know how much the management has known. How much they were paying attention or why they were not paying attention to what was happening to these children.

"We don't want to rush into anything. There is a lot that has to be figured out and hoops to go through to file a claim."

Paternostro said personnel files will have to be scoured to see if background checks were made before hiring, as well as checking on staff members' education levels to be caregivers for the children.

Although the 24 children were removed from the three houses Jan. 16 and 17, it wasn't until Jan. 31 that one parent became aware of the situation at the center.

 "I have an autistic son, non-verbal, age 23," a Moorefield parent said. "He usually goes to the Potomac Center one weekend out of each month.

"I am outraged, sick of what has happened there. My son stayed at the respite care house. No one from the center contacted us about this situation."

She said the only way she found out was from one of her son's former classroom aides who told her about it Jan. 31.

"My husband Googled, found all information to be true. Where is the media?  Why is this so hush-hush?" she said. "As a parent of a disabled child I am sickened."

The Moorefield parent said her husband called the Romney Detachment of the West Virginia State Police and was told the case was under investigation.

"I know other parents in Moorefield that weren't aware of what happened," she said. "At this point in time I'm not taking my child back there. I feel very uneasy, basically because they didn't let us know what was going on.

"My son can't tell me if something happened to him. I feel like someone hit me with a bat. This is so upsetting."

 Another parent, who wished to remain anonymous, said his child would not be going back to the center until all possible information is obtained.

"They have done a lot to help my child, but one right doesn't rectify 10 wrongs," the parent said.

That parent said he has been told by a person still working at the center that if any one of the 50 people recently laid off had abuse allegations against them in the past, they would not be brought back to the center.

"I know there were two people abused in the house where my child was living," the parent said. "They can't tell me what the abuses were. I don't know if my child was abused."

Following the removal of the 24 children from the center, an investigation began, which included the state police, DHHR and the Hampshire County Prosecuting Attorney.

Once the children were removed, Medicaid funding sources for the three houses from which the children were removed stopped.

Due to that revenue reduction, 50 people were laid off Jan. 24 and the remaining staff members' hours were cut to 32 hours per week, resulting in a 20 percent cut in pay. A total of 82 out of 180 workers at the center have been affected.

In the interim, center officials met with officials from the DHHR and the Bureau of Children and Families attorney to discuss the status of the center.

A DHHR spokesperson said the investigation was still underway and had no further comment.

Center CEO Rick Harshbarger said for now interviews at the center have stopped.

"We are not hiding anything and for every disgruntled parent, I can find many more who are very satisfied," Harshbarger said. "We are in a wait-and-see mode and we know they have more work to do away from the center like talking to the kids. We're not sure how long that will take."

 Last week, Lt. Michael Baylous, in the office of public affairs with the WVSP, said his agency was continuing to conduct interviews.

"It takes a long time because there are so many people to interview," Baylous said. "You have to take into consideration that some of those being interviewed are special needs kids and it may take an extended period of time."

Baylous said it is his understanding that the children were placed in safe environments around the state.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it took until the fall to complete the investigation," he said. "The Captain advised me that we are still in the process of conducting both potential victim and potential suspect interviews."

He said considering that the children have been removed from the situation, the state police probably will move at a little slower pace than is done in other cases in order to make sure the investigation is done properly.

On March 6, a Morgantown parent said she had been assured that no one from the respite staff was in any way involved or accused of any form of abuse.

A letter from the center asked her when she was comfortable with starting respite services for her child to please call.

"This is really heartbreaking for us," the parent said. "I keep praying for guidance. Plus my child really enjoyed going there."