Baker Victory Services' 10-year battle to replace a dated residential treatment center for teens with behavioral problems with a new $16.7 million facility has finally ended, with its 40 residents now living in air-conditioned private rooms for the first time and enhanced security making it less likely they can run away.
The residents, aged 12 to 21 and from across New York State, moved April 21 into the new one-story facility on Martin Road, tucked behind the old residential facility.
The opening of the new 50,000 square-foot facility earlier this month was a hard-fought victory for Baker Victory officials. It culminated years of court battles, public hearings and outcry. Lackawanna had sought to stop Baker Victory Services from adding another building to its treatment complex on Martin Road. But now city officials are voicing support for the residential treatment facility that the nonprofit started more than 50 years ago.
"We felt all along they needed to have a better handle on the folks inside," said City Clerk Jeff DePasquale, who lives a quarter-mile from the facility. "They've enhanced security. They've installed a six-foot fence and added security cameras. They appear to have improved in that area. If they're good neighbors, we're good neighbors."
The new treatment facility has 58 exterior and interior surveillance cameras, but Baker Victory Chief Executive Officer Terese Scofidio said it has the feel of a college campus.
"Parents want their kids to feel like they are home," Scofidio said, during a tour of the treatment facility. "There are lots of trees and greenery. Pretty much, families can come here whenever they want. A lot of kids go home for visits. I mean it's not like they come in and never leave. We provide the clinical skills and care for their needs."
The residents, some of whom are committed by court order, are there an average of six months.
When troubled teens were first sent to the residential treatment center at Baker Hall in 1956 they slept in dark and dingy rooms with barred windows. The '70s and '80s brought an expansion and residents were moved into cement-block cottages that afforded a more homelike setting. Later, the windows would be covered with curtains held in place by Velcro instead of rods to deter suicide.
In 2009, about two years after Baker Victory Services first proposed the construction of a new residential treatment center, then-Lackawanna Mayor Norman L. Polanski Jr. voiced his opposition to the project. Polanski said the facility could house potentially dangerous youth, and that it was a drain on city resources.
Between 2006 and 2015, Lackawanna fire and police answered 1,622 calls at the residential treatment center, said current Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey Szymanski when he appeared at a public hearing in August 2014 to discuss the construction of the proposed facility.
"There's always been very bad headaches between Baker Victory Services and the city," Szymanski noted, "specifically regarding the clientele who had always wreaked havoc on city services especially kids trying to break out."
There were reports of residents fighting each other on the facility's front lawn were not uncommon. DePasquale told of teens from Baker Victory breaking out of the facility and swimming in neighbors' pools.
In June 2014, events may have reached a tipping point when Dionte Cooper, 16, who had been declared a Person in Need of Supervision by Family Court and ordered to the residential treatment facility, ran away from the facility and within days assaulted and raped three women in the Allentown-Elmwood area. Cooper was recently sentenced to 21 years in prison for those crimes.
"I have been working with them to establish a relationship," said Szymanski. "The past is the past and hopefully we can move forward. This facility now should have the ability to keep things in-house."
Scofidio was appointed CEO at Baker Victory Services in 2014. In her previous role as CEO of the Cantalician Center for Learning, Scofidio oversaw an expansion that resulted in a 92,000 square foot Cantalician Center school on George Urban Boulevard in Depew.
The Baker Victory construction posed a different kind of challenge for Scofidio.
"For 10 years, the plans (for Baker Victory) were in limbo," said Scofidio. "With this new facility we are trying to lift the shroud. Nobody talks about mental health. I grew up in Lackawanna and all you saw were these brick buildings. This is a hidden story. We are a hidden gem. People do not realize what we do here."
Baker Victory Services is the city's biggest employer. More than 800 of Baker Victory's 1,100 employees work in Lackawanna. Of those, 123 are city residents. As a nonprofit agency, Baker Victory pays no property taxes but operates on a $54 million budget, more than twice the size of the City of Lackawanna's budget.
The residential treatment center, housing 40 developmentally challenged adults ages 12 to 21 is one of many social services programs operated by Baker Victory to help people from infancy through their 80s with various needs ranging from severe mental health issues to typical preschoolers in a daycare center.