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Morgan Center prepares for closure amid uncertain future

  - Lynsi Burton/staff photo
— image credit: Lynsi Burton/staff photo

For Maggie Mahoney, working at the Frances Haddon Morgan Center has become a stressful environment. It’s not because of her work with the severely disabled residents, but because she doesn’t know whether she’ll have a job this summer.

With the center slated for closure by June 30 in Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed 2011-2013 budget — a decision still not approved by the Legislature — Mahoney, a house manager, is one of 150 employees whose jobs are in jeopardy. Furthermore, there are about 50 residents, some of whom have been there for decades, whose futures are unclear. Though local lawmakers are working on legislation to keep the Morgan Center open in some capacity, staff members are living under the assumption that it will close.

“It’s talked about a lot,” Mahoney said of the stress among staff members. “It’s very, very anxiety-producing, for any employee.”

Three employees already left for other jobs this year in anticipation of the Morgan Center’s potential closure, with many more looking, Superintendent Carol Kirk said. The three vacated posts – a supervisor, an administrative support position and a direct service provider — are being left unfilled.

Mahoney, who has worked at the Morgan Center for about two years, is also looking for other jobs, though she says she is not “frantically job-seeking.”

But the challenge she faces is to balance her personal needs with ensuring the residents will make it safely to their next placements, should the Morgan Center close.

“As a responsible person, when do you need to look at, ‘When do I need to make sure I’m OK?’ And at what point am I bailing?” Mahoney asked. “I feel I have a responsibility and obligation physically to make sure they transition safely into the next home for themselves. There needs to be enough trained people here to facilitate that change.”

Kirk said that as an administrator, she would like to keep her employees for as long as possible.

“The job is never done,” she said. “In our situation, where we believe in three months from now we won’t be here any longer, we still have that sense of responsibility that we need to be here and do our best.”

However, she doesn’t blame Mahoney or any other staff member for seeking work elsewhere.

“There’s no harm, no foul if Maggie decides, ‘I have to protect my future,’” Kirk said.

Perhaps more pressing for the Morgan Center is what to do about its 50 residents. With the Morgan Center targeted for closure along with another state residential habilitation center, the Yakima Valley School, there are three other such programs left, including the Fircrest School in Shoreline, Lakeland Village in Medical Lake and the Rainier School in Buckley. Another alternative is to place residents in a community-supported living program, operated either privately or by the state.

This year, five residents have been moved by their families. Three were placed in community care while two went to other residential habilitation centers. Three more residents are scheduled to move in the next couple weeks. The moves were not solely in reaction to the proposed closure, Kirk said.

The residents’ families are polled on where they want the residents to go should the Morgan Center close, though their preferences are not binding, Kirk said. Out of about 50 residents, about 30 of the residents’ families indicated they preferred another state residential habilitation center, Kirk said.

“That’s what they’re familiar with and that’s a service that they know,” she said.

There are two residents who don’t have families to make decisions for them, Kirk said. For those residents, a treatment team made recommendations to place one in a community care setting and the other in a state residential habilitation center.

Meanwhile, legislators are hoping to keep the Morgan Center open in some way. State Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, said she will propose the state Department of Social and Health Services explore alternatives to closure, such as whether the Morgan Center could be run by a nonprofit or a public/private partnership. It may also obtain waivers from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid to run as a state operated living arrangement, which includes in-home assistance, supervision, personal care and community activities. Though the state Office of Financial Management has said closing the Morgan Center and Yakima Valley will save the state $2.2 million in the 2011-2013 budget, Appleton said that moving residents to Fircrest would cost the state $200 more per day.

“We are working hard trying to find a solution so that the parents can relax and be assured that their loved ones are being taken care of by the same people who have been part of their families for years,” Appleton wrote in an email.

Arcella Hall of Camano Island, whose 37-year-old son has lived at the Morgan Center for 22 years, said parents are frustrated with the way the proposed closure is being handled. She said she was told that if she doesn’t choose an alternate placement for her son, the Morgan Center staff would choose for her.

“In a way it almost comes across as a bullying message,” she said. “I don’t think I’m alone in saying our first reaction is literal heartache.”

Bill Looney of Silverdale is among those fighting to keep the Morgan Center open. Though he moved his daughter into community-based care in Kitsap County in the past year – she had lived at the Morgan Center since 1978 –  he still lobbies for the center.

“I believe we need people of conscience and we evidently are seeing that people who should be taking care of the most vulnerable are going the other way,” Looney said. “I don’t know what money’s for if it isn’t for having a just and good life.”

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