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Budget cuts force White County camps closure
Program for troubled teens has operated more than 35 years
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Gail Chambers took her teenage grandsons to half a dozen psychologists for their behavioral problems, but it wasn’t until they spent six months roughing it in a Cleveland wilderness camp that she saw a change.

“They really liked the place,” said Chambers, a Gainesville woman whose grandsons went to juvenile court for drug offenses and other delinquent acts. “It wasn’t fun and games, either. It was discipline and structure. They were told, ‘This is what you have to do if you want to complete the program and go home,’ so that’s what they did.”

This month state officials announced that the Outdoor Therapeutic Program in White County is shutting its doors Dec. 31 after more than 35 years of operation, a victim of budget cuts at the state Department of Juvenile Justice. Some of the 15 teenage boys currently in the program will be transferred to a similar campus in Warm Springs. The camp’s 26 employees will be out of jobs.

“It’s really devastating to me that this would be closing,” said Chambers, who says the program’s counselors transformed her grandsons into mature young men with stronger self-esteem. “I just think this type of program is so important.”

Tom Wilson, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, which oversees the program, said the closing “is largely a reflection of the economic conditions in the state.”

“It’s been running at a $1.2 million deficit, so it’s not sustainable,” Wilson said.

The Outdoor Therapeutic Program is funded through the juvenile justice department, which provides the camp with a per diem for each teen who is sent there. But with cuts mandated at all agencies, juvenile justice officials in recent months have sent fewer teens to the program, which is operating at about a third of its 44-boy capacity.

Wilson said officials had to make tough decisions with state income down 15 percent from last year.

“The fat programs were cut a long time ago; everything we have to cut now is a good program,” he said.

State Sen. Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro, has made the closure a personal cause, even though she does not represent the district where the camp is located. Buckner knows several people whose children went to the program and has spent time on the campus as a volunteer mentor.

She said the status of the Outdoor Therapeutic Program has concerned her for more than a year, when cutbacks were beginning to limit the number of teens sent there.

“Many have said they feel like their son or grandson would not be alive today if it hadn’t been for that program,” Buckner said.

Buckner understands the budget limitations the state is under but says, “all across the board, we have to set priorities.”

“It’s certainly more economical to send these teenagers to be in this program than for us to pay for them to be in jail later,” Buckner said. “And many of them will admit, if the program had not turned them around, that’s where they would be.”

Hall County Juvenile Court Judge Cliff Jolliff said news of the closing left him “extremely disappointed.”

“Over the years it was a greatly used resource,” Jolliff said. “I’m very sad to see that happen.”

Local attorney Ari Mathe, who represents juveniles as a public defender, said newer home-visit counseling options will have to fill the gap.

“These community-based efforts can be successful even when a placement isn’t available,” Mathe said.

Buckner is calling for concerned people to contact Gov. Sonny Perdue’s office or their local legislators and appeal for an 11th-hour reprieve.

“We’re having to put forth a last-minute effort,” she said. “I’m trying to get folks united to call the governor or their senator, or to find someone who has the ability to make a large enough donation that can serve as a stopgap until the state can afford to pay for it.

“In the long run, we’re going to have to pay for these folks who are going to be getting in trouble down the line, as well as the employees who are going to be out of a job,” Buckner said. “We’re cutting off our nose to spite our face.”