Hillcrest Academy faces imminent closure as Hamilton County looks for new management
A residential school and treatment facility for young people in Hamilton County's juvenile justice system will close August 1. Now, the court is taking suggestions from the community as it looks toward reopening it next year.
Hillcrest Academy in Wyoming has been operating since 1914. It's a minimum security facility that provides high school and vocational education as well as mental health services.
The court ran Hillcrest until 2011 before contracting management out. Rite of Passage has run Hillcrest for the last several years.
The facility once housed 50 male residents between the ages of 12 and 18. But Hamilton County pulled 12 youth from the program in May after sexual abuse allegations against an ROP employee at the site named Francine Thomas surfaced. Hamilton County Job and Family Services pulled another six young people from the location as well. Thomas is due to stand trial November 8 on the allegations.
At a public listening session Tuesday night, Hamilton County Juvenile Court Administrator Liz Igoe said Rite of Passage's contract was set to expire this year and that the search for a new provider had "nothing to do" with the abuse allegations against a Hillcrest staffer.
The court is looking to have an RFP for other providers put together by late August with the goal of opening Hillcrest again next May, Igoe said. The court wants a contractor or contractors who can meet the court's educational goals while providing mental health and reentry services for those in the county's juvenile justice system.
"As part of the expiration of this contract, the court is looking for the best residential treatment program we can find for Hamilton County," Igoe said. "Our county children and residents deserve nothing less."
Speakers at the listening session suggested more vocational programming, bringing in more community-based organizations to serve young people at Hillcrest, a survey of outgoing staff about problems at the facility, and a number of other ideas.
Rite of Passage Eastern Region Director Bill Wood says the organization tried to come to an agreement with Hamilton County to extend their contract, but that wasn't possible. Wood says 70 full and part-time employees work at Hillcrest. Some transferred to other Rite of Passage locations, but others are losing their jobs. Remaining youth at Hillcrest will go to other facilities.
"They had ended the contract at the beginning of August, and we'd talked to them about a proposal with corrective measures, whatever that might take, but we just couldn't come to an agreement on how to run it," Wood said. "You have to have some kids there to pay the staff, essentially. We were willing to run it at a loss, but not that significant of a loss."
Sheila Davis has worked at Hillcrest for seven years, but her last day is August 1. She says she wasn't prepared to lose her job.
"It saddens me, more than anything," she said. "Even with the hiccups Hillcrest had, we did good work. We had people on the inside who were passionate about what Hillcrest stood for and the impact we were trying to make with this population — the at-risk, the hard to serve."