‘To Hell and Back’

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The Famous Farm: The serene flagship campus of Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth.

Photo: John Krahm/Berkshire Farm Center

Canaan, N.Y.—Jim Gaudette had reason to feel enthusiastic as he sat down at home with a cup of coffee and the Sunday paper one morning in July 2005. The next day, he would start his new job at one of the state’s most venerated residential treatment facilities, the Berkshire Farm Center.

Then his eyes caught this front page headline in the Albany Times Union: “Reports of teen abuse surface: Berkshire Farm Center for troubled boys investigates allegations of beatings, sex attacks.”

Giacchetta: “We need a little bit of luck.”

Photo: Berkshire Farm

That is how many of Berkshire’s 700 employees found out that their agency was in a crisis – one that would embarrass them, cost some their jobs and threaten the nonprofit’s survival. Over the following months, allegations of staff misconduct would draw heavy media attention, prompt several jurisdictions to stop sending youths to Berkshire and cost CEO Rose Washington her job.

“It was one of the more stressful two to three years I have ever experienced,” says Gaudette, superintendent of the school on campus. “There were a lot of times we asked, ‘Are we going to go under?’

Today, a cautious optimism blows across the 2,000-acre campus here in the lush Berkshire Hills. The investigations are over, the agency has improved its staff training and other operations, and a new CEO has launched an ambitious business strategy for Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth, which runs a statewide network of programs.

That CEO, Tim Giacchetta, greeted a visitor after a few days on the job last summer with a handshake, a big smile and the declaration, “We’ve been to hell and back.”

By no means is Berkshire all the way back; it might never be. Aside from the wounds from the scandal, it is struggling with the same economic changes that threaten residential youth centers across the country. Berkshire’s budget has shrunk from $54 million a few years ago to a little over $40 million today; the number of occupied beds at the main campus has declined from as many as 270 to about 150.

It’s easy being green when you’ve got three greenhouses on campus.

Photo: Berkshire Farm

Berkshire stands as a case study – albeit imperfect and incomplete – of how one agency stumbled into turmoil and how it has struggled to come back.

Trouble

Simply put, things had gotten loose.

Founded in 1886 as a home for troubled boys, Berkshire grew to serve more than 3,000 youths and their families each day through a network of residential, foster care, group home, detention, prevention, education and family preservation programs, under contracts with most of New York’s 62 counties. The main campus – home to Berkshire’s corporate offices, residential treatment center and school – houses 12- to 17-year-olds referred by family courts (from probation or child protective services). The facilities include 12 residential cottages, three greenhouses, a theater, a gym, a pool and access to a beach on a lake.

Giacchetta says that when he moved to this area of New York in 1986 to launch his career in mental health and child welfare (at a different agency), “Berkshire was the premier agency in the state. They were on the cutting edge of everything.”

“Over time,” he says, “I watched the agency start to deteriorate.”

Gaudette: “There were a lot of sleepless nights.”

Photo: Berkshire Farm

The main problem, some staffers say, was that by the early 2000s, training had slackened, procedures for working with youth were routinely ignored, and supervision had gotten so lax that youths routinely hurt each other. They say the agency hired people with behavioral backgrounds, such as violence, that should have raised red flags, and kept workers it should have fired.

“What I saw was really a nightmare,” said social worker Anne Quinn, who worked at Berkshire for eight years. There was “a tremendous amount of gang involvement by youth and staff, a tremendous amount of drug activity.”

What’s more, Berkshire was being hurt by the changing market in residential care, as governments increasingly rely on community and in-home services and use large residential centers for severely troubled youth who need more intense and specialized services.

The results show on Berkshire’s federal tax returns: After racking up annual surpluses of up to $6.6 million through the late 1990s, the agency began running deficits in 2001-02, when it had a $3.7 million deficit on income of $44 million. The shortfall was $3.6 million in fiscal 2005-06.

Some employees raised concerns about the campus operations with the board of directors, which eventually hired two consultants to look at different aspects of staff and supervisor performance. In 2005, the consultants reported separately on various problems, such as cottages that were out of control, according to the Times Union. Berkshire declined to make the reports available to Youth Today.

Raising each other: Youths work with farm animals at Berkshire.

Photo: Berkshire Farm

The worried staffers believed the board’s response failed to get at the agency’s fundamental problems, while CEO Washington did not believe there were fundamental problems. Washington says the charges of lax staff training and procedures, and of failing to adjust adequately to the changing business climate, were “absolutely not true. None of it.”

She says Berkshire had been expanding its community-based programs, and that “we had training all over. We had top-notch training.”

Frustrated, several staffers took their concerns to the state Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), which licenses Berkshire. And a man who visited the school as a motivational speaker wrote a widely circulated letter charging that “youth are being abused (emotionally, sexually and psychologically).” At some point amid all this, the OCFS launched an investigation.

These various probes were the basis of the first Times Union story in July 2005, setting off more than a year of body blows:

• At least two counties removed their boys from the campus.

• The state police and local district attorney investigated allegations of abuse at the campus. (No charges were filed.)

• The state reported finding “some very serious problems” at the campus, including 10 substantiated physical and verbal abuse incidents in two years (none of them deemed severe); nurses not properly reporting some youths’ injuries; and supervisors letting boys at one cottage “fight to settle their differences.”

• The media reported these and other troubles, through stories that often quoted angry current and former employees as well as family members of residents. Julie Brennan, chief of staff at the time, said the reports left some staffers feeling like “you didn’t want to say you worked at Berkshire.”

Gaudette says the first dramatic sign that Berkshire was in serious financial trouble came in September 2005, when the campus census – which typically rises each fall as youths return to school – stayed flat.

“People were very fearful” about the future of the agency and their jobs, social worker Quinn says.

Change at the Top

Painful cuts had to be made everywhere, including at the school.

Photo: Berkshire Farm

The first major casualty was Washington, a youth-work veteran with an old-schooler’s heart for kids. Before joining Berkshire Farm in the mid-1990s, Washington ran a secure juvenile detention center and oversaw New York City’s Department of Juvenile Justice.

“She put in a tremendous number of hours,” says Doug Ackerman, who worked at Berkshire for 37 years, serving as its recreation director and the school’s athletic director. “I’d come back from a basketball game [at night], she’d still be in her office.”

As for the investigations, however, Washington saw things differently than most others. She says the trouble all stemmed from false allegations raised by Jah-Rel Muata Kiongozi, the motivational speaker at the school, whose claims about his own achievements have been questioned. Among other things, after Kiongozi (born Jerel Eaglin) gave a speech in California, The Modesto Bee reported that he had cited academic degrees that he did not appear to have.

Nevertheless, the internal and external examinations persuaded most others at Berkshire that the agency needed to change drastically the way it did business. “We had so many things that we realized we needed to work on,” says Brennan, the former chief of staff who is now vice president of admissions and program marketing. “We needed to look at our services” to see how they matched the needs of the youths and families.

The first thing that meant, says Board President Robert Kandel, was that “as much of a contribution as Rose Washington may have made to the farm, she was not the person to bring in the strong type of leadership” that Berkshire needed.

Washington retired in September 2005. The board named Harith Flagg, director of strategic planning and development, as interim chief while it searched for a new CEO. Flagg had previously retired from state government and was making plans to retire for good. “They asked me to stay for a year,” he says.

That turned out to be wishful thinking.

Involving Staff In Survival

While the troubles played out, managers worked to make immediate improvements and to keep employees focused amid the investigations, media reports and rumors about pending personnel and program changes. “People were spending a lot of emotional energy and time thinking about what was happening,” says Donelle Hauser, a veteran employee who became director of residential services last year. “It did, at times, affect productivity.”

What’s more, Gaudette says, some “good people” left for other jobs. He admits to having considered it himself. “There were a lot of sleepless nights, [wondering] whether I should be trying to stay here and make this thing right, or whether I should start putting out résumés.”

At the school, Gaudette had to retool programs to deal with more youths who needed higher levels of services, while also closing a $2 million deficit in his $7 million budget. And he had one more big surprise: Just as he joined Berkshire, the state Department of Education put the school under “registration review” for failing to meet certain academic criteria.

One of his first and most effective actions was to bring the employees together to lay out the financial reality and involve them in reviewing the school’s mission and goals. They re-examined virtually everything the school did, both in-house and through contractors. The questions, as Gaudette put it, were, “What is it that we have to be able to do?” and what could they do without?

Staffers knew some of them would be the answer to the second question. In the fall of 2005, the school laid off 17 of its approximately 100 employees. One was Quinn, the social worker, who says that Gaudette “probably did the best he could, given what he was given at the time.”

The school also trimmed services, such as the cleaning company contract; eliminated others, including a technology consultant; changed class sizes and assigned some staffers to more tasks. Throughout the changes, “We regularly met with the entire [school] staff and gave them an update about where we were and what we were doing,” Gaudette says.

Setting goals to gauge progress helped to give staffers a sense that the school was on the right track. The accomplishments included getting the state to increase Berkshire’s approved per diem rate for youths sent to the facility, and being removed from the state’s “registration review” through such measures as focusing more on reading skills to produce measurable gains in literacy.

Flagg, meanwhile, says he met with county and state officials to see what Berkshire needed to change in order to make them comfortable sending children there. The changes included retraining staff to follow the same system of care, as well as layoffs and firings.

A turning point for the school was something that didn’t happen: Thanks to the various changes, a planned second round of layoffs was avoided. “When people realized jobs were saved, I saw a big change in the staff,” says Bruce Potter, assistant superintendent of the school. Workers could see that “we’re in this for the long haul.”

For the long haul, however, the CEO search was becoming part of Berkshire’s struggle.

An Interim’s Conundrum

The agency was operating under an inherent conflict of sorts: While staffers craved a dynamic change agent at the top, Flagg saw his job as “to kind of hold things together until they hired a CEO.” An executive search firm recruited candidates, whom the board invited to tour campus unescorted and gave promises of full support for major changes. “The message we gave to them is that there were no sacred cows,” Kandel says.

The board’s first choice for CEO said no. It seriously considered at least one other: Michael Williams, CEO of Orchards Children’s Services, a multi-site child welfare agency in Michigan, who had a cheering section on campus; he had worked there in the 1980s to help create programs and processes at the cottages. Williams says he was offered and accepted the job, but then the offer was withdrawn. Kandel says they never reached an agreement. Word of the breakdown infuriated some staffers, persuading them that Berkshire would not launch the kind of overhaul it needed.

“Instead of trying to force the issue” by digging down in its list of candidates, Kandel says, the board decided to start a new search in the near future. In 2006 the board persuaded Flagg to stay for two more years.

As a former associate commissioner at the state Office of Children and Family Services, Flagg was well-positioned to bring Berkshire into compliance with government regulations.

But he almost literally had one foot out the door: While leading the agency, Flagg and his wife bought a house in Savannah, Ga., in June 2007, according to state property records.

Flagg did not see it as his mission to hire a new leadership team and instill a new organizational philosophy. “That’s the conundrum I was in,” he says. “Do you go in and make dramatic changes that a new CEO is going to have to come in and inherit?”

The answer was no.

Flagg and other administrators introduced various degrees of changes. For example, one major problem was inconsistency in how staff handled youth: responding differently to emotional and physical outbursts by residents, rewarding them differently for accomplishing goals, and documenting their decisions differently or not at all. “Every cottage was starting to operate in its own manner, by their own rules, their own programming,” Brennan says.

Berkshire instituted a more robust and regular system of training and retraining on its motivation system for youth, which allayed the concerns of some of the government agencies that sent youth there.

Such moves helped keep the place afloat but did not alter its basic course, which frustrated and angered some employees. “There was a division between those who really wanted change and those who were afraid” of it, Quinn says.

Some staffers also missed Washington’s presence, with her long hours and personal contact with youths and the staff. “No one could question her [Washington’s] commitment to the kids,” says Robert Tucker, a former resident who served on the board during those tumultuous times. “This guy comes in that’s 100 percent the opposite.”

Regardless of what anyone thought of Flagg, having the agency run by an interim left many workers feeling that the place was merely surviving day to day. “People wanted to make sure we had a vision,” Gaudette says. “A lot of people felt they were floundering around. We didn’t know where we were going.”

Kandel, the board president, says the administrative response might have seemed slow to frontline staff, for whom the problems are “right in their face,” but the board had to take “a much broader perspective” to map out long-term changes.

That points to one thing that administrators say they would now do differently: Make sure higher-ups communicate their thinking and their plans with frontline staff.

Communicating with Staff

The direct communication theory that Gaudette employed at the school was not applied so quickly throughout the Berkshire system. “One of the things we would have done differently is more communication” with staff members earlier in the process, says Hauser, now the residential director.

Early on, she says, the process for dealing with changes and other matters was to “keep the information to a small group,” who would resolve the issue, thinking that “the more you communicate, the bigger the problem could grow.”

That fueled some gossip and mistrust.

“Now we’re proactive,” Hauser says. “We’ll say, ‘We’re going to be closing Spencer Cottage because we want to fix the roof.’ Or, ‘We want to bring together these two programs.’”

“A lot of what we learned was how we needed to be completely transparent with ourselves,” Brennan says.

She and Hauser stress the importance of something as mundane as getting employees together on a regular basis. “We had to get back to the basics of having a weekly staff meeting,” Hauser says. Now, those meetings often include someone from other sections of campus, such as the school or health services.

“The more people were aware” of what was happening, either good or bad, “the more the anxiety went away,” Brennan says.

Although the immediate changes focused primarily on the main campus, the need for better communication involved facilities across the state, as well as top administrators. “It can’t just be at the top level to know where’s our strategic plan for the next two years,” Brennan says. “We learned that the hard way. Now we have strategic planning retreats,” which include staff members from every level of programming across the state. Regular, statewide e-mails from the CEO also keep everyone up to date.

But communication can’t solve everything. During a crisis, Hauser says, “people want assurance. That’s something I couldn’t give them. There was no sure answer to, ‘Are we going to be here? ’ ”

That answer required a new CEO; the search was well underway by early 2008.

A Path to Survival?

Giacchetta responded to that search with an insider’s view of Berkshire’s troubles, by virtue of his post as chief operating officer of Northeast Parent and Child Society (based in nearby Schenectady) and his relationships with state and county officials. He thought he knew how to fix Berkshire, but also thought, “Maybe the agency wasn’t fixable.”

Before joining Berkshire, Giacchetta met with officials at county agencies that formerly referred youths to Berkshire. “We had some frank chats,” he says. He asked them, “If I took this over as CEO, what issues would I have to address before we would begin doing business again?”

From the board, Giacchetta sought certain assurances, primarily that the board would stand 100 percent behind him in overhauling Berkshire, despite certain pain. He says he presented the board with “my vision for the agency,” including a six-month plan with 21 items, which the board endorsed.

The pain came quickly. Giacchetta says that in the first two months, he made $2 million in budget cuts – mostly in administration, and mostly by laying off staff. In January, he made another $500,000 in cuts, including more layoffs.

Jobs are also being redefined and even created, as Berkshire overhauls its services. “A lot of other agencies were a little ahead of us” in adjusting to economic shifts in the field, Gaudette says. “We’ve got to play a little catch-up and find out what market are we going to serve, what kinds of kids are going to be our specialty.”

To do that, Giacchetta says, the agency is creating more “specialty” beds (including a unit for youths recovering from substance abuse), “rapid reunification” units focused on returning youths to their families, and a cottage for hard-to-handle kids who are referred by school districts.

At its sites around the state, Berkshire is redesigning its home-based foster care program to “make the homes more versatile, to help the counties step kids out of residential care sooner.”

In several ways, things are looking up. Berkshire is in good standing with the state Office of Children and Family Services. Counties that suspended referrals because of the 2005 investigations have returned. Last year, the school won a $3.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to help its students succeed, through such means as reducing school violence and increasing community-based mentoring. For the 2006-07 fiscal year, the deficit was down to $127,000, according to federal tax returns.

“We have turned a corner,” Giacchetta says. But he’s realistic. “This is a work in progress. … We need a little bit of luck.”

 

  • leonore Gordon

    Considering placing our almost-18 year old son there this summer, with CSE referral. He’s bi-racial, from Brooklyn, from a 2-mom family, with a history of learning problems, special-needs schooling,and school-avoidance, and recently some stealing, and alot of weed-use, which landed him in Brooklyn court. He’s a good, bright kid, and great athlete,but needs intensive structure. He’s pretty anxious about tough kids, even with his own bravado. How will he fit in at BF?