Former employees, parents describe downturn of The United Arc, which lost several contracts in July

  • Linsey Hindley and her son, Nathan Morrison, who was served by The United Arc over several periods during the past two decades, said its services for him declined drastically in the past several years. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • The United Arc on Avenue A in Turners Falls. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 10/15/2021 4:25:52 PM

TURNERS FALLS — Former employees and parents of people served by The United Arc describe a toxic workplace and the gutting of programs that led to the organization’s downfall since the 2015 hiring of recently ousted Executive Director Lynne Bielecki.

In July, the state Department of Developmental Services (DDS) ordered The United Arc to surrender its Residential and Shared-Living contracts to ServiceNet at a Sept. 20 deadline. The organization’s Individual Home Supports contract was also in jeopardy of being surrendered, but Bruce Biagi, current board of directors president, did not respond for a comment to confirm the status of that contract.

The United Arc, founded in 1951 by Rita Marguerite Canedy and incorporated in 1960, serves clients in Franklin, Hampshire, Hampden and Worcester counties through its offices in Greenfield, Turners Falls, Holyoke and Athol.

Biagi previously said The United Arc’s Residential Program serves 14 individuals, the Shared-Living Program serves five individuals and the Individual Home Supports Program serves 44 people. The United Arc will retain its contracts for Support Services and Family and Youth Services, which serves 500 people.

The report from the Department of Developmental Services showed The United Arc failed to manage its clients’ health conditions, properly train staff and manage internal affairs. The report found the organization met only 51% percent of licensure indicators, with five critical indicators missed.

Former employees said Bielecki slashed several programs and groups inside the agency while holding grudges against those who pushed back, which led to “huge staff turnover” as employees resigned or were fired. At the same time, parents and individuals served by the organization said complaints about living conditions and staff actions fell on deaf ears.

Bielecki could not be reached for comment.

Program cuts and hostile atmosphere

Loreen Flockerzie, who worked for The United Arc from 2009 to 2018 as a self-advocacy adviser for the organization’s Pioneer Club, a group of people served by the organization who were encouraged to make their own decisions and develop social skills, said the group was a “great resource” that crumbled away.

“It was teaching them to advocate for themselves and to do for themselves, which was a great system,” Flockerzie said in a Zoom interview. “Everything was in their hands in how they ran their meetings and when Lynne came it all sort of changed.”

Flockerzie said it started with the nixing of the group’s annual Thanksgiving dinner. Other changes were gradually made from there.

“Some of them were sudden and some of them were sort of chipping away at the program,” Flockerzie said. “They took them and pared down their self-advocacy rights and sort of told them, ‘You’re going to do this and do that.’”

She added that Pioneer Club members had a close relationship with former Greenfield Mayor Bill Martin, who would visit the club on his own time, but Flockerzie said Bielecki began having Pioneer Club members visit several state representatives and it began to feel like lobbying efforts for The United Arc’s own financial gain — often with only high-functioning members being chosen to represent the organization.

Frustration from Flockerzie, clients and parents began to build, but she said complaints were disregarded and led to a tense situation in the office.

“You would walk into the building, there was such an atmosphere you could almost cut it with a knife, it was so negative,” she said. “The club would say to me, ‘What’s going on?’ And I didn’t have an answer and I felt bad.”

Flockerzie’s frustration reached the point where she became disillusioned with the direction The United Arc was heading and left the organization. She places the blame on Bielecki for the organization’s downfall.

“She decimated the place,” Flockerzie said. “And that’s too bad. It served a lot of people. A lot of families, they really depended on The Arc.”

‘Just a number’

Jennifer Lemoine, who worked with The United Arc as a family support employee in the Athol office until 2019, echoed similar observations of programs being pared down without input from employees or those served by the agency.

“It turned into more of a business,” Lemoine said in a phone interview. “It felt like these families were just a number and that’s not how it was being run before.”

Lemoine said Bielecki seemed to lack experience in running a family support program, which shifted more responsibilities to an already overworked staff. As previous staff members left or were removed, Lemoine said the new people in charge lacked the ability to run the program effectively.

“They have no background in any of that stuff,” Lemoine said. “It’s like hiring someone to work at a bank who can’t do basic math.”

She, and other former employees, said complaints or concerns filed with the human resources department were usually swept aside as the organization went through at least five HR staff members during Bielecki’s tenure.

“You did not have anyone to go to if you had a complaint. You couldn’t go to HR because no one was there long enough,” Lemoine said. “It caused rifts. … Everyone was walking on eggshells.”

Between the hostile work environment and unexplained program cuts, Lemoine said the situation began affecting her and colleagues’ abilities to work.

“It was just getting so bad. Everyone was fighting and people were getting fired,” Lemoine said. “I was crying at home at night saying, ‘I can’t even do my job right, I’m not helping these people.’”

Lemoine ultimately left The United Arc in 2019 after a leave of absence. She said the results of July’s state report were not surprising, and that both The United Arc and Department of Developmental Services failed to serve the area’s residents with disabilities.

“It’s just horrible, and all this could have been stopped years ago if the board (of directors) and DDS put their foot down. … It’s disgusting to me,” she said. “I’m just thinking of these people with the individual contracts that are now being shuffled around. … So many lives are affected, and people just can’t realize it unless you’re living it or worked in that realm, just how much these families need that support.”

Frustrations

Mary Traver, whose son has autism and was served by The United Arc until the end of 2017, said a group of parents got together that year to address the board of directors with their concerns about how The United Arc was being run and they were brushed aside.

“We did not come to them with rumors and whispers,” Traver said, sitting in Greenfield’s Court Square. “When a bunch of us met with the board of directors, it was essentially, ‘Talk to the hand.’”

Traver said The United Arc was a “premier organization” under the leadership of former executive director Ed Porter, who served at the head of the organization for nearly 40 years, but that progress was erased in less than a decade.

“With the services we had at The Arc, it was such a rich array,” Traver said. “It went downhill quickly.”

Traver, who noted her son did not have a negative experience under The United Arc, said she could see employees suffering under the new working conditions.

“Turnover was outrageous and parents were upset,” Traver said. “They cleaned house.”

She said removing her son from The United Arc’s programs was a painful experience because the organization came to be a “second family” over the years.

“It felt like a divorce,” she said.

Dumped

Linsey Hindley and her son, Nathan Morrison, who has been served by The United Arc over several periods in the past two decades, both described a living environment that did not properly fulfill Morrison’s needs when he returned to the organization’s care in 2019.

“There was no quality of life whatsoever,” Hindley said, sitting next to Morrison. “He had no access to the community. They wouldn’t drive him to see his friends or family.”

Hindley didn’t want to send her son back into The United Arc’s care, but it “was the only place approved” by the Department of Developmental Services. She said Morrison was placed in a group-living residence for wheelchair-bound and nonverbal clients.

“It was definitely not an appropriate place for him,” she said. “They just dumped him there.”

Morrison described his living situations with The United Arc as “horrible and very unfriendly.” He said the organization did not meet his needs and took away some of his favorite activities. Hindley added Morrison was not allowed to use the stove or coffee maker, despite having the experience and ability to do so.

“Yup,” Morrison said when asked if he thought The United Arc had failed him. “I got to go to Arc cookouts, art nights. I had a good time (before).”

Hindley said she never had any problems with The United Arc for years until Bielecki was hired.

“It has not been a good two years,” Hindley said. “It’s hard because you put your trust in an agency … then all of a sudden I didn’t trust a single person.”

Like Lemoine, Hindley said the blame is twofold, with both The United Arc and Department of Developmental Services at fault.

“DDS should have acted a lot sooner,” Hindley said. “I blame them as much as I blame The Arc.”

‘Deeply distressed’

Former Executive Director Ed Porter, who now lives in Maine, said it was disheartening to hear about The United Arc’s forfeiture of contracts because his “identity was so tied into” the organization and he couldn’t believe the news when he heard it.

“I don’t know the ins and outs of the situation, but I was deeply distressed by it. … You don’t spend 40 years of your life doing something and have somebody destroy it in six,” Porter said in a phone interview. “It saddens me greatly that she destroyed the organization. I think I’m legitimate in that feeling.”

Porter, who said he was not involved in the hiring of his successor, said he hopes The United Arc can put the pieces back together and try to continue the mission it set out to do back when it was founded.

“I don’t know what’s left to build from at The Arc,” Porter said. “I hope that it can be raised as a sort of phoenix from the ashes.”


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