Charged with providing a better environment for the residents of the Communities at Oakwood, a nine-person task force was assembled this week to focus on both intermediate and long-term planning for the oft-troubled mental health care facility in Somerset.

Handpicked by Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS) Secretary Mark Birdwhistell, the task force is a subcommittee of the House Bill 144 Commission on Services and Support for Individuals with Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. According to Steve Shannon, Deputy Commissioner of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, the task force came together during a Monday meeting of the 144 Commission, leading to a mid-week announcement about the group.

“I think it will be positive,” said Shannon. “It will be an opportunity to have a fresh group of people look at Oakwood, from a slightly different perspective than we’ve had to date. I think it’s an effective strategy that will yield a lot of good information.”

Most of the members of the task force were already affiliated with the 144 Commission, said Shannon. Those who were not, and were selected to be on the task force, are Donna Burton, an Oakwood employee; Gary Latham of Hopkinsville, the parent of an Oakwood resident and a former hospital administrator, and Tim Veno of Louisville, the president of the Kentucky Association of Homes and Services for the Aging and a former Kentucky Inspector General.

Other members of the task force include:

• Roland Mullins of Mt. Vernon, with the Kentucky Association of Regional Mental Health and Mental Retardation Programs;

• Gayle Rees of Winchester, another parent of an Oakwood resident;

• Beth Smith of Frankfort, executive director of the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation;

• Glenna Taylor of Glasgow, who is related to an adult individual with MR/DD (mental retardation/developmental disabilities) being served in the community;

• Louise Underwood of Louisville, also a family member of an adult individual with MR/DD;

• Marsha VanHook, a Somerset consumer.

The group will be chaired by Eugene Foster, Ed.D., the CHFS Children and Family Services Undersecretary. Foster, a licensed psychologist whose background includes significant experience with special needs clients and 25 years leading strategic planning efforts with different organizations, has also been executive vice president of Maryhurst, Inc., a Louisville-based child welfare agency involving a residential component.

“This task force, composed of experienced individuals in the field as well as an employee of Oakwood, will provide critical support to the Cabinet and Governor Fletcher in assessing the current situation at Oakwood and developing recommendations to help guide our short and long-term efforts to best serve the residents,” said Birdwhistell in a press release. “I thank these dedicated committee members for agreeing to share their perspective and expertise with us at this critical junction in the history of Oakwood.”

Birdwhistell added that Foster’s “leadership and strategic planning experience will serve this effort well.”

Shannon noted that the members of the task force “represent a wide range of folks,” making it a “vehicle to do analysis ... beneficial to Oakwood.” He added that the key is to assist Birdwhistell in his handling of situations at Oakwood and that he is “looking forward to reading (the) recommendations” made by the task force.

The timing seems urgent following on the heels of three clustered Type A citations, bringing Oakwood up to 18 such reprimands in the past year and a half, as well as an arrest made earlier in the week of four Oakwood workers who allegedly beat an adult client while on a fishing trip. Additionally, allegations brought up in state media of unreported instances of abuse and negligence prompted Gov. Ernie Fletcher to request a Kentucky State Police investigation into the goings-on at Oakwood, though the office of Attorney General Greg Stumbo insists such probes were already underway.

The common theme — making Oakwood a better, more secure environment for those living and working there.

“The objectives of this task force will be vital in shaping our efforts to ensure the health and safety of Oakwood residents,” said Birdwhistell.

Recommended for you