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Westmoreland juvenile detention center on track for March reopening

Officials announced on Wednesday that Westmoreland County’s juvenile detention center is set to reopen this month.

Westmoreland County’s detention center for young people is expected to open again this month, officials said on Wednesday.

The facility that holds young people who have committed crimes has been shut down since June following a series of checks by state officials that found not enough staff and training. Those discoveries led the county leaders to close the center.

Controller Jeffrey Balzer, who leads the county’s juvenile detention board, said recent staff additions will allow the center to start operating again. The initial plan is to take in about three or four young people.

Balzer said, “It’s been hard to get the right people in place. We weren’t going to open until we were ready. We're not going to endanger the kids.”

Director Rich Gordon said the exact date for reopening hasn't been decided yet.

“It will be after St. Patrick’s Day (on March 17) but before the end of the month. We’re not ready to announce the exact date yet,” Gordon said.

The detention center is one of two programs in the Regional Youth Services Center in Hempfield, the other being an eight-bed unsecured shelter for at-risk young people.

Juvenile detention is a secure lockup for young people accused of crimes.

State checks were done after a situation last spring when a teenager there tried to commit suicide. Inspectors also mentioned other incidents including near riot as examples of staff not being trained well.

The center briefly reopened in December to house one inmate after officials said there were no other local options to keep him confined after he had escaped from the non-secured shelter a few days earlier.

Gordon said there are still more staff being added.

The center currently has nine full-time employees with three jobs still needing to be filled. Gordon said the current staff is enough to oversee about four young people in detention.

“It’ll be like a soft reopening,” Gordon said. “When we (shut down) I didn’t think it would be this long. I thought it would just be a couple of weeks.”

The center will only accept a limited number of young people not just because of the remaining staff shortage but also to make room for a $961,000 construction project expected to start this spring. This includes putting in new security doors and locks as the current ones were installed in 1979.

Gordon said the project is expected to continue into the fall.

Michele Bononi, who oversees the county’s juvenile court system, said the planned reopening this month is necessary.

Bononi said, “It’s a good thing. We haven’t had a place for these kids and it has cost us a lot of money.”

While the center was closed, the county rented space in other public and private facilities for troubled young people, including adult prisons in Allegheny, Lawrence, and Lehigh counties. In some cases, the county has paid up to $800 a day to house young people there, Bononi said.

Westmoreland County’s facility, along with a 20-bed center in Erie, are the only two government-run detention programs in the western region Pennsylvania, as stated in a study published last year by the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges Commission.

Shuman Detention Center in Pittsburgh shut down in 2021, but is set to partially reopen next month after a yearlong renovation program. The operation will be managed by Adelphoi Inc., a private company located in Latrobe.

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