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24 children removed from Potomac Center, DHHR investigating

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By MARLA PISCIOTTA
For The State Journal

The West Virginia State Police indicated Jan. 31 as many as 12 potential victims of abuse, ages 7 to 17, and potentially 10 suspects have been identified at the Potomac Center, a home for developmentally disabled children and adults.  

Twenty-four kids living at the Potomac Center, located on Blue Street in Romney, were removed Jan. 16 and 17 following reports of possible physical and sexual abuse.

The investigation began when upper management at the center reported the possible abuse to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources when it was brought to its attention.

Officials said once the investigation began one perpetrator reported on another revealing that four, five or even six incidents that should have been reported to management, weren't.

As of Jan. 31, WVSP spokesman Lt. Michael Baylous said the alleged physical and sexual abuse could have been occurring as early as 18 months prior to the report made to the DHHR in January.

The Potomac Center is a not-for-profit entity contracted with the DHHR. The center provides residential assistance and support for both children and adults with developmental disabilities.

As the investigation has continued, additional troopers from the Crimes Against Children unit have joined the Romney detachment to assist in paperwork.

Forty-five percent of the employees at the center have been affected by the investigation. Fifty people were laid off Jan. 24 and the remaining staff cut to 32 hours of work per week, resulting in a 20 percent cut in pay. A total of 82 of 180 workers at the center have been affected.

The removal of the children has led to a large financial impact, which has caused the layoffs. Medicaid has cut off all payments to the center since the children were removed from three of the buildings.

"The three houses are our biggest revenue source," said Rich Harshbarger, CEO of the center.

Harshbarger said the three-building training program brings in a substantial amount of money to the center.

"The layoffs are temporary," he said. "I hope these people will still be available when we reopen the three houses."

This past week Harshbarger and the center's COO Kim Helmstetter, met with DHHR general counsel Karen Villanueva-Matkovich and Bureau of Children and Families attorney Williams Jones to discuss the status of the center.

Allison Adler, DHHR director of communications, confirmed the meeting but would not comment on its content. Harshbarger, however, said the meeting went well. 

"We presented them with a lot of information about all the positive things we have done lately to serve (the residents)," he said.

 The Potomac Center operates on an $8 million budget that comes from various federal and state sources.

"A lot of it comes from Medicaid," Harshbarger said.

The center has three eight-bed residences, an off-campus eight-bed home, a six-bed off-campus home and five three-bed homes. Three of the eight-bed homes on campus were where the 24 children who were removed had been living.

Dan James, Hampshire County prosecuting attorney, said there was a lot to review.

"Numerous troopers have been assigned to different parts of the investigation," James said. "There is so much information on something of this scale, a lot of information and documents for law enforcement to review. 

"I want to make it crystal clear that our priorities are the protection of those children. We are not rushing this investigation.

"I am outraged and deeply saddened by the exploitation of children and lack of compassion by some employees at this facility. Let me reiterate, in the strongest terms, my condemnation of this behavior."

Harshbarger has been the CEO of the center since its inception in 1980. He said the entire situation has "hit him like a ton of bricks." 

"This action is demeaning, disrespectful, degrading and intolerable," he said.

The Potomac Center is one of the largest employers in Hampshire County.