The Macon Telegraph, May 8, 2000
Multiple Allegations of Child Abuse: Mel Blount Youth Home could lose state license
By Skippy Davis
VIDALIA - The difference between strict discipline and intentional abuse is at issue in a state agency's decision to yank the license of the Mel Blount Youth Home for troubled boys.
The state Department of Human Resources notified the home's director and board chairman in November it intends to revoke the license following an investigation into multiple allegations of physical and mental abuse from residents and former residents.
The home has appealed the state's decision. The case is expected to be decided by an administrative law judge. No date has been set for an appeals hearing, which likely would take place in Atlanta.
"Because they've appealed, they can continue to operate pending the outcome of the appeal," said Jo Cato, director of DHR's child-care-licensing section, which conducted the investigation.
The Mel Blount Youth Home, founded by the former Pittsburgh Steeler, opened in 1983 for boys ages 10 to 18 and operates on more than 250 acres near Vidalia. Another Mel Blount Youth Home has operated in Claysville, Pa., since 1989.
Blount founded the homes as private, non-profit Christian havens of healing and hope, according to information from their Web site.
But the DHR says its investigation showed "knowing, intentional and reckless disregard for the physical and mental health and safety of children in residence at the facility."
The 14-page report states that 28 of 33 boys interviewed told of mistreatment. Allegations include harsh beatings with paddles, sticks and a rubber hose, forced feedings, forced fights with other residents and humiliation of boys with disabilities.
One youth reported that two other residents held him down while a staffer beat his genitals with a stick. Three other residents said they saw the beating and that it continued until the stick broke.
Some boys also alleged they had undergone or witnessed forced feedings, had been required by staffers to fight other boys in a ring, had been made to dig ditches and "bust rocks" through the night "until the sky turned pink" and to hold cinderblocks "like binoculars" while running laps.
Nineteen of 33 residents said they were not allowed to go to school while on punishment work details. Several said they spent far more time on work details than in school.
And 22 of the boys reported that staffers enforced an intimidating "code of silence," with threats of punishment if they told anyone including parents, caseworkers and state Department of Juvenile Justice workers, about the punishments.
Blount's brother, Clinton Blount, is director of the Vidalia facility. In a telephone interview Friday, Clinton Blount said the allegations are untrue, and he has no idea why they were made. But the boys who come to him are troubled and often belligerent, Blount said.
"Most of the boys who come here do have a criminal history, and they've burnt all bridges by the time they get to us," Blount said. "But we've never done anything but work with a child in a way he will become a productive citizen."
Blount said five of the boys have prepared to attend college this year, and many go into military service or return home to lead productive lives after leaving the Mel Blount home.
Blount also said it is not unusual for former residents to return to visit him and the school.
"We have two here today," he said. "We have no locks, no guards and no gates. It's as much of a family setting as there could be. You would be fair and correct to say there has been no abuse."
But the report may lead to closure of the home. Because of the investigation's results, DJJ has removed its 20 clients who were in residence at the home and subsequently terminated its contract there. DJJ was paying the home $120 a day per youth.
There are literally hundreds of other residential facilities available for troubled youths in Georgia, from private residences to institutions, said Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Jaci Vickers.
Blount said the home has 16 boys in residence from across the country.
The license revocation is an administrative procedure. No criminal charges have been filed, according to the Department of Regulatory Services.
DHR has fined the Vidalia home twice in the past for violations of regulations - $450 in 1990 and $799 in 1993. Those incidents are part of the basis for the decision to revoke the home's license, according to DHR's letter of intent.
Administrative Law Judge Marion Cornett, deputy chief judge of the state Office of Administrative Hearings, said a hearing on the appeal was expected this week but was postponed. It's likely a new hearing date will be set soon.
Normally a judge issues a written decision within 30 days of the hearing, Cornett said.
The possibility exists, Cornett said, for the two sides to come to an out-of-court agreement to resolve the matter prior to a hearing.
"That does happen in many cases of this type," he said. "But there's no way to know whether it will happen in this case."
Officials in Pennsylvania expressed surprise upon learning of the problems at the Mel Blount home in Georgia.
When it opened a little more than 10 years ago, the Mel Blount Youth Home in Washington County, Pa., had some serious licensing problems relating to corporal punishment and also with proper background checks of staffers, said Susan Aspey, deputy news secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.
"But in recent years they have done a great deal to correct these problems and have been in compliance with regulations for these facilities," Aspey said.
The Pennsylvania home has, however, operated under a provisional license for the past three to six months, relating to issues such as clearance of staffers.
"But we are in the process now of granting them a full license," Aspey said.