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Sitka Academy closes its doors

Loss of students from CYFS program prompts school district to shutter facility

Sitka Academy, a program operated by the Newberg School District to serve youths in the care of Chehalem Youth and Family Services, is not operating during this school year due to a lack of students to attend its classes.

The academy was attended solely by youths living in CYFS group homes, which a Department of Human Services spokesperson and an attorney for CYFS both confirmed are no longer housing residents.GARY ALLEN - Sitka Academy is not operating this fall due to the Oregon Department of Human Services' potential revocation of Chehalem Youth and Family Services' license to operate residential care homes for youths.

The state agency notified CYFS in June of its intention to revoke the Newberg care provider’s license to operate residential youth homes. The notice cited a number of incidents that came to light during a long investigation, including alleged neglect, maltreatment, lack of supervision, failure to follow procedures in mandatory reporting and protection of residents’ health and safety, and financial mismanagement.

CYFS has since appealed the state’s decision and will contest the findings in a hearing set for this fall, but in the meantime DHS has relocated all residents of the three group homes that together housed 16 youths.

“DHS began moving children upon filing an intent to revoke in June 2016,” DHS spokesperson Andrea Cantu-Schomus confirmed in an email.

A fourth CYFS home was shut down by DHS last fall through the same process, with similar incidents cited for the closure.

For several years young people living in CYFS homes who were enrolled in public schooling received education through the Long Term Care and Treatment (LTCT) program provided by the Willamette Education Service District (WESD). Admittance into that program was automatic for students living in the group homes, Newberg School District spokesperson Claudia Stewart said.

Education service districts are used to provide programs that are in limited demand and may not be cost effective for an individual school district to hire full-time. ESDs serve multiple school districts, meaning personnel are shared in an effort to reduce costs for each district.

The LTCT program aims to tailor teaching to the issues the youths in CYFS homes face.

“To be admitted to a group home, it’s indicative that they have social, behavior and academic struggles,” Stewart said.

But in April 2015, the WESD told the Newberg district it would no longer provide that program for Newberg students, and that beginning in the 2015-2016 school year the district would have to find another option to educate that population.

The school district could not find another program to contract with, Stewart said, so it began developing its own in-house program to educate the youths. New employees were hired and trained and when the YMCA branch on Sitka Avenue closed in August 2015 the school district leased the building to open the LTCT program. The facility was remodeled and furnished with new equipment, and was dubbed Sitka Academy.

It opened in September 2015 to 35 students, a number that Stewart said fluctuated by five or six students during the year, although those who left were quickly replaced. Staffing also fluctuated from 10 to 12 employees, based on how many students there were and whether they required an individual aide.

All in all, startup and operational costs for Sitka Academy came to $800,000, made up of federal funding as well as from the Newberg School District general fund. The school district hoped to expand the program so it could serve other school districts as well (similar to the WESD).

“We built this program to continue to operate,” Stewart said.

But beginning in about April (two months before the state issued the intent to revoke notice) the numbers of students began to decline, Stewart said. In the intent to revoke notice, DHS said new admissions to the group homes were officially closed on May 19. The school year closed with 12 students at Sitka, Stewart said, only a third as many as the program opened with. The dwindling population raised questions about whether Sitka would have anyone to serve in the coming school year – questions that elicited few solid answers.

Stewart said school district officials “were asking those questions for at least two months, and there was just not a clear answer.” And with about a dozen staff members slated to work in that program, a decision had to be made. There were vacant staff positions in other departments that the Sitka employees could be moved into if the program was going to shut down, Stewart said.

Then the news of the state’s intention to revoke CYFS’s license came in June. With the Sitka program populated entirely by residents of those group homes, DHS told the district there would not be any students to serve, and the school district made plans to close Sitka and move the staff members into other departments.

But once CYFS appealed the state’s move to revoke its license, a protective seal was ordered by the Department of Justice that barred release of most information about the case. At that point DHS stopped talking to the school district, Stewart said. In early August the school district received further confirmation from CYFS there would be no students to attend the Sitka program in the fall.

All the staff members who worked in the one-year-old program have been reassigned to other school departments, Stewart said, adding that there are not yet any alternative plans for the Sitka building.

There’s also no definitive answer on whether the program will start back up. After all, CYFS has not actually had its license revoked (see sidebar), and if it wins its appeal youths could potentially move back into the group homes.

“We’ve been hearing mixed messages about the residential program starting up, meaning that (the Newberg School District) would need to start up the (Sitka) program to provide services for kids,” Stewart said Monday. “Despite efforts, there is no clear answer from CYFS or DHS because of the ongoing litigation.”

Last week the Oregon Department of Education contacted the school district, Stewart said, advising it to hold off on taking action with the Sitka building due to the potential for the program to start back up mid-year. That would presumably be the case if CYFS wins the appeal and retains its license.

“So the future of the Sitka (LTCT) program remains unclear and the school district remains in a holding pattern,” Stewart said.

Attorney Connor Harrington, representing CYFS, said that while the residential services program no longer has any youth to serve for now, CYFS “is focusing on serving the community through its Chehalem Counseling Center, Youth Opportunity Occupation Program (YOOP) and (Lucky Finds) thrift store, which are all currently operating.”

CYFS Executive Director Deborah Cathers-Seymour noted the YOOP program provides education to a population that was not served by Sitka Academy: youths who have dropped out and are not enrolled in public education through the school district, and who are working to earn their GED, to receive community college credit or other certifications. The program also teaches employment skills to help students enter the workforce, she said.

YOOP has two facilities, in Newberg and McMinnville, and has more than 100 youth participants right now, Cathers-Seymour said. Many of those enrolled in YOOP programs “struggle with poverty, homelessness and behavioral concerns,” she said. “They have not been successful in mainstream public school settings and have typically dropped out.”

As for the youths who were moved out of the group homes by DHS, it’s unclear where they have been relocated to. DHS declined to comment due to the protective order.