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Center opens to offer chance at new life for young women

While officials at the new Donegal Centre for adjudicated and dependent young females celebrated the opening of the Westmoreland County facility on Monday morning, the real christening took place five hours later.

About midafternoon, the program designed to help females between the ages of 14 and 21 to get their lives back on track welcomed its first resident, a court-adjudicated teenager from Erie.

"We're a gender-specific program, and there aren't very many across the state. We're very excited to offer a specially designed program to assist what we believe is a long-underserved population," program director Monica Long said.

Long, who has worked at several other residential programs for delinquent and adjudicated youths throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania, said the Donegal Centre is among a handful of state-licensed facilities addressing the needs of girls and young women.

"Most similar-type facilities have programs primarily aimed at needs of young males. We feel with our new facility and specific program, we can better serve the needs of young ladies who need help," Long said.

A 2009 report by Pennsylvania's Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Committee emphasized that the state needed facilities to better serve young women and girls.

A Department of Justice report in 2010 noted that although the number of juvenile court delinquency cases remained steady from 2000 through 2007, they increased dramatically for females.

"In 1980, females represented 11 percent of juvenile arrests for violent offenses. By 2000, that proportion had grown to 18 percent, and by 2004, it had risen to 30 percent," the report said. "Even though arrest numbers remained higher for boys than girls during that period, arrest rates for girls increased while rates for boys decreased."

The independently owned and operated facility on Snyder Road is just off the Donegal interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in a completely refurbished, four-story building that formerly housed an assisted living center, a senior citizens home and a Holiday Inn.

Washington County businessman Robert A. Bruno, who operates nursing homes in North Huntingdon and Washington, was a minor investor in the project until a major principal dropped out about two years ago.

"I still thought it was a good idea and decided to go ahead and do it," Bruno said.

After 18 months and investments of more than $1 million in renovations, including a new sewage plant, sprinkler system, alarm system, security camera systems, kitchen and laundry facilities, Bruno said he "is happy (the opening) is finally here."

There will be 42 beds available in the more secure residential program facility that will serve adjudicated and delinquent females, and 36 available for a program to assist young women who need to develop independent living skills. Initially, the center will employ 26, but Long foresees a staff of 70.

"We're not serving just urban youth but rural youth, as well. This is a perfect location for our young ladies with the activities available in this area, plus being right off the turnpike makes it convenient," she said.

Long said the facility has a state license to offer special education services including core classes in math, English, science, social studies and physical education, along with electives in Spanish, computers and art. All youths entering the program will be assessed by a licensed psychologist.

She said the program will offer a four-month nurse's aide program for older participants, plus an in-house culinary arts program.

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