Officials address concerns about youth facility

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During their meeting Monday, Williamston Town heard concerns from a citizen about the youth facility being located on Williams Street which was followed by a presentation of information by representatives of the facility. The old Williamston hospital building on Williams Street is being renovated for the facility which will be known as the Williamston Youth Academy.

Matt Johnson, a resident of Gatewood Subdivision, said he has questions and concerns about what he called a Troubled Teen Home being located on Williamst St. and the effects it may have on Gatewood, the town and nearby towns.

Johnson said he had questions about the number of beds, risks, whether it is gated, staffing ratios and zoning. He also asked about those being housed and the effect on local schools. “There are a lot of unknowns,” he said.

During the same meeting two representatives of Meridian Behavioral Health Systems, the company that will run the facility, addressed some of the concerns .

Josh Smith, Director of Special Projects and Operations and Wes Mason, CEO of Meridian Behavioral Health Systems both spoke.

Mason said his father founded the company five years ago and that it offers services throughout the county for kids and others with special needs.

He said children in the facility may need help with emotional, mental health and other needs that vary.

Both he and his dad have background in psychiatry.

He said the company is based on three things:: that everyone deserves a second chance; focus on strengths not weaknesses and meeting cultural expectations.

Mason said Meridian has programs in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina. A facility similar to the one coming to Williamston is located in Myrtle Beach.

Mason said they focus on mental and emotional health to get the kids back into the community and that they have had a lot of success.

“We take a lot of pride in what we do,” he said. “We want to be a community partner.”

Mason addressed comments that representatives had not been up front about the project.

He said they planned to slowly integrate and get some feedback from the community while at the same time “to help kids get the service in what they need.”

Mason said many of the children are separated from their parents and have problems in education, are abused, abandoned, even raped.

“We want to help those kids,” he said. “We will provide the vision they need. We want to be a solution.”

He said many of those in the Myrtle Beach facility are from across the state, some NC and Tenn.

“We want them to get better and become better citizens.

He said the facility will meet all codes, zoning and renovation requirements and will help the kids be able to integrate back into their community.

Mason said, “We plan to hold an open house so that residents have an opportunity to meet us and see the facility and ask questions.” He said they want to be a part of the community.

“We will need community help,” he said. “So that they can be contributing members of the community and get the help and support they need.”

Mason said the state does not offer the help many of the children need, explaining that they have taken in children who have spent the night in a case worker’s office because they have nowhere to go.

He said there will be specific safety measures and supervision in place at the facility, however there are no gates or fences.

“They are not higher level risks,” he said.

Smith said the facility is undergoing a full renovation with safety features comparable to most psychiatric facilities. There will be locked secure doors with a panic bar and a new fire suppression system. “The building is designed for this size population,” he said.

According to Smith the Williamston facility is very much like the one in Myrtle Beach, which is located in the middle of Myrtle Beach on a golf course. He said it has succeeded with community support.

Churches have been a big part of the support and helping with Christmas, which he said sometimes the children haven’t experienced.

“We plan to hold a forum so the community can know what type facility it is and the programs we are creating,” Smith said.

The facility will be the largest of its kind in South Carolina according to Smith and will have 1-7 patient/staff ratio. It will have an education director, clinical care and offer services they don’t get at a group home.

“We want to help these kids be successful outside the community,” he said.

Some of them will go to public schools, others if necessary will be served on site.

They are evaluated on a formal clinical process about placement. Smith said they have talked with officials at Anderson School District One about the facility plans and needs.

District One Superintendent David Havird said the school district should have no problem meeting the needs of the children that may be at the facility and will treat them as they would any other residents in the district.

“As a school district, at Anderson District One, it is our desire to serve any and all students that reside in the district and do it well,” Havird said. “We want to prepare all our students to succeed in the twenty first century.”

Havird said the District “will work with the students that may be in the facility in a cooperative and very positive way to serve them so that they can acclimate and come into our schools and function well.”

He said if necessary the District may need a teacher and can work with students in homebound situation or online or with a tutor if necessary.

“We will try to be prepared and provide all options of service to the students they have,” Havird said. “District One will provide an opportunity for those students to graduate as any other student in the school district.”

He said the district can focus on individualized education plans and special needs.

Havird also mentioned that in some cases, a student can be sent to the Anderson County Alternative School if necessary.

“We will look at their record and determine the best placement.”