Grand Jury's criticism of Sullivan House puzzles county officials

J. H. Osborne • Apr 11, 2007 at 12:12 PM

Sullivan House in Blountville. Times-News file photo.


BLOUNTVILLE - A Sullivan County grand jury report delivered to county commissioners last month calls for investigation of conditions at a county-owned facility where teenage boys are sent by local courts.

The request has left court officials and commissioners familiar with the facility somewhat perplexed.

"I don't know what we'd do without them," Judge Mark Toohey said Tuesday of those who run Sullivan House. "We're fortunate to have a place to send boys without having to commit them to the state."

"I'm just grateful we have this facility and (Frontier Health staff) to work with us," said County Commissioner Linda Brittenham. "It is one of the things that make me proud to be a part of Sullivan County, and I'm glad we have it."

Toohey and Brittenham were among about a dozen people who toured the facility in question - and ate a meal prepared in its kitchen.

The only thing they had trouble with was trying to match the grand jury's report with the facility they saw.

Sullivan House is a decades-old, county- owned facility in Blountville. The county contracts annually for the facility's operation by Frontier Health. On Tuesday it appeared neat, clean and well-run, county officials who toured the facility said.

In an end-of-session report, the Sullivan County grand jury that served from September 2006 until February of this year called on the County Commission to investigate conditions its members say they saw at Sullivan House during a quick visit there in January. On the same day, the group visited the county's two jails, its highway department, the court clerk's office, and the Children's Advocacy Center.

The report, dated Feb. 28, was distributed to county commissioners last month. It includes the following points of concern from the grand jury.

•"The condition of the facility was of concern to members of the grand jury. The entire place seemed very run down. The carpet in the common area was dirty, as were the cushions on the sofas."

•"The lighting seemed inadequate."

•"The kitchen was of greatest concern in matters of cleanliness. The window sill over the kitchen sink contained a dozen or more dead insects. The floors were dirty with pieces of old food in between cabinets and appliances. The countertops were also sticky and dirty. The entire place had the smell of old grease."

•"We are also concerned that the meals provided to the youth at the Sullivan House are not planned by a dietitian. There would not need to be a dietitian on staff, a weekly meal plan should be sufficient. The meals at the Sullivan County Jail are planned by a dietitian."

•"We were told the boys had one teacher for all subjects and grade levels. A child could be housed ... for up to five months. This could be an entire academic year. We do not feel it is in the best interest educationally for the boys to have one teacher for every subject and grade level. We were told a lot of the boys take classes to obtain their GED while in the program. While this might very well be the best path for some, it most certainly should not be the only path available. If these children are the responsibility of Sullivan County, then they should be able to continue earning the credits they need to graduate from a Sullivan County area high school."

•"Members of the grand jury did not feel like the Sullivan House was adequately staffed, particularly on the night shift. There is only one staff member on duty at this time. This does not seem like a safe situation for either the staff member or the residents."

•"The overall consensus of the grand jury members was that the Sullivan House was very poorly managed. We would strongly suggest that the Sullivan County Commission investigate this grand jury's findings as soon as possible."

The report also asked that the next grand jury follow up on the situation.

Doug Varney, president of Frontier Health, said he visited Sullivan House - unannounced to the staff there - as soon as he read the grand jury's list of concerns.

"I read the report and was concerned about some aspects of it and actually did an unannounced visit to Sullivan House myself because I just wanted to see some of the things for myself," Varney said in a telephone interview with the Times-News. "Some of the things in the report did need attention, and we've taken care of those things. Some of the things - I just didn't think they were right about. But it's their role to do what they did, and they're entitled to their opinion, of course. I was glad there was nothing life threatening or any safety issue, really, in there. But we took it in the spirit it was given and made the changes we could immediately, and there are some others in process."

Varney said Sullivan County Mayor Steve Godsey had also toured the facility at Varney's request.

"I wanted him to also have his opinion about that," Varney said.

Dealing with an aging structure with limited funding for capital improvements can be challenging, Varney and county officials said.

"Some things structurally you just can't change," Varney said.

County Commissioner Wayne McConnell is chairman of the committee that has oversight of Sullivan House.

During a discussion of the grand jury's report on Tuesday, McConnell pointed out the county is supposed to be financially responsible for any maintenance or improvements to the facility in excess of $500.

Frontier Health staff who were present said replacement of a portion of the facility's carpet is already scheduled - and funded in this year's budget, as are improvements to bathrooms.

Varney said the facility receives regular treatments for pest control and said the insects he found in a window were nothing more than could occur in any home.

According the Tennessee Department of Health, the food service area of Sullivan House was inspected about two weeks ago - and scored 90 out of a possible 100.

The educational program at the facility is offered through the county's school system, Varney said, and he didn't think the criticism in the grand jury's report was warranted.

"I think they're used to a more traditional classroom setting," Varney said. "When you have these special education programs, it really just doesn't work that way."

The situation at Sullivan House requires greater flexibility and more one-on-one instruction, Varney said.

Staff who met with McConnell and the others on Tuesday said they thought some of the grand jury members may have misunderstood and believed only GED classes were offered. They said pursuit of a GED is often urged for boys who arrive at the facility as 16- or 17-year-olds still many credits away from completing a regular diploma.

"I really wished I'd had an opportunity to talk to grand jury members directly," Varney said.

Staff at the facility said they plan to prepare a detailed packet of information to give to grand jury members next year.

Sullivan County pays about $300,000 per year to Frontier Health for operation of Sullivan House, which provided court-ordered housing and programs for 42 Sullivan County boys between 13 years old and 18 years old last year, Varney said.

"The kids are there because our local juvenile court authorities think their problems are not serious enough to warrant them being put into state custody - but they want to get their attention," Varney said. "If the judges commit them to state custody, then the state decides what happens to the children. In these few cases, the judges in the county have said they want to know what happens to the kids and maintain control of what goes on with them."

Toohey said when a juvenile goes into state custody they are sometimes placed in foster care - which doesn't provide the professional programs available in a Sullivan House-like facility - or they are sent to a state-funded facility in another county, making it hard for their families to visit or be involved in counseling.

A committee of Sullivan County commissioners which has oversight of Sullivan House met at the facility Tuesday evening. The committee meets there four times a year. It's called the Youth Home Committee, and it's made up of members of the Sullivan County Commission's Executive Committee. The group was joined by Toohey, Sullivan County Director of Juvenile Court Services Bob Larkins, Frontier Health staff, and a Times-News reporter.

Recommended for You

    Kingsport Times News Videos