TURNERS FALLS – Former employees and parents of those cared for by The United Arc describe a toxic workplace and weeding out programs that led to the downfall of the organization since the hiring of recently deposed Executive Director Lynne Bielecki in 2015.
In July, the State Department of Developmental Services (DDS) instructed The United Arc to hand over its flat-sharing contracts to ServiceNet with a September 20 deadline. The organization’s individual home support contract was also in danger of being abandoned, but Bruce Biagi, the current chairman of the board of directors, did not respond to a comment to confirm the status of that contract.
The United Arc, founded in 1951 by Rita Marguerite Canedy and founded in 1960, serves customers in Franklin, Hampshire, Hampden and Worcester through offices in Greenfield, Turners Falls, Holyoke and Athol.
Biagi previously said that United Arc’s Residential Program serves 14 people, Shared Living Program five people, and Individual Home Supports Program 44 people. United Arc maintains its Support Services and Family and Youth Services contracts, which serve 500 people.
The Department of Developmental Services report showed that The United Arc failed to manage the health of its customers, properly train its staff, and manage internal affairs. The report found that the organization only met 51% of the license indicators, missing five critical indicators.
Former staff said Bielecki cut several programs and groups within the agency while holding grudges against those who pushed back, resulting in “huge staff turnover” as staff resigned or were laid off. At the same time, parents and individuals cared for by the organization said complaints about living conditions or actions taken by staff fell on deaf ears.
Bielecki could not be reached for comment.
Loreen Flockerzie, who worked for The United Arc from 2009 to 2018 as a self-advocate for the organization’s Pioneer Club, a group of individuals mentored by the organization and encouraged to make their own decisions and develop social skills, said the group is a “great resource” that is crumbling.
“It taught them to stand up for themselves and act for themselves, which was a great system,” Flockerzie said in a Zoom interview. “Everything was in their hands as they held their meetings, and when Lynne came everything changed.”
Flockerzie said it started with the extinction of the group’s annual Thanksgiving dinner. From then on, more changes were gradually made.
“Some of them came suddenly and some of them chopped off the program,” said Flockerzie. “They took them and reduced their self-advocacy rights and told them, so to speak, ‘You will do this and you will do that.'”
She added that Pioneer Club members had a close relationship with former Greenfield Mayor Bill Martin, who would be visiting the club in his day, but Flockerzie said Bielecki has started allowing Pioneer Club members to visit multiple state officials, and it felt like lobbying for The United Arcs’ own financial gain – often only highly functional members are chosen to represent the organization.
Frustration from Flockerzie, individuals and parents began to build, but she said complaints were not being considered and resulted in a tense situation in the office.
“You went 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 had no answer and I felt bad. ”
Flockerzie’s frustration reached the point where she became disillusioned with the direction The United Arc was headed and she left the organization. She blames Bielecki for the downfall of the organization.
“She decimated the place,” said Flockerzie. “And that’s a shame. It has served a lot of people. Many families were really dependent on The Arc. ”
Jennifer Lemoine, who worked as a family support associate in the Athol office at The United Arc until 2019, reiterated similar observations of programs being scaled down without any intervention from staff or staff of the organization.
“It became more of a business,” Lemoine said in a telephone interview. “It felt like these families were just a number and it wasn’t run that way before.”
Lemoine said Bielecki appeared to have no experience running a family support program that placed more responsibilities on already overworked staff. When previous employees left or were removed, Lemoine said that those in charge were unable to run the program effectively.
“You have no background in that stuff,” said Lemoine. “It’s like hiring someone to work at a bank who doesn’t have basic math skills.”
She and other former employees said any complaints or concerns filed with the human resources department were usually brushed aside, given that the organization employed at least five human resources during Bielecki’s tenure.
“You had no one to go to when you had a complaint. They couldn’t go to HR because nobody was there long enough, ”Lemoine said. “That caused cracks. … All walked on eggshells. ”
Between the hostile work environment and inexplicable program cuts, Lemoine said, this began to affect her and her colleagues’ ability to work.
“It was just getting so bad. Everyone fought and people were fired, ”said Lemoine. “I cried at home at night and said, ‘I can’t even do my job right, I don’t help these people.'”
Lemoine finally left The United Arc in 2019 after a leave of absence. She said the results of the July condition report were not surprising, and both The United Arc and the Department of Developmental Services had failed to help residents of the area with disabilities.
“It’s just awful, and all of this could have stopped years ago if the board (directors) and DDS got a foothold. … It’s disgusting to me, ”she said. “I’m just thinking of these people with the individual contracts that are now being mixed up. … So many lives are affected and people just can’t see it unless you live or work in that area, how much these families need this support. ”
Mary Traver, whose son has autism and was cared for by The United Arc until the end of 2017, said a group of parents had come together this year to address their concerns about the governance of The United Arc and them have been brushed aside.
“We didn’t come to them with rumors and whispers,” Traver said in Court Square in Greenfield. “When a couple of us met with the board, it was essentially ‘speak with your hand’.”
Traver said The United Arc was a “premier organization” under the leadership of former Executive Director Ed Porter, who headed the organization for nearly 40 years, but that progress was wiped out in less than a decade.
“It was such a rich offering with the services we had at The Arc,” said Traver. “It went downhill quickly”
Finding that her son had no negative experience with The United Arc, Traver said she could see employees suffering from the new working conditions.
“The sales were outrageous and parents were upset,” said Traver. “You cleaned the house.”
She said it was a painful experience removing her son from The United Arc programs as the organization had become a “second family” over the years.
“It felt like a divorce,” she added.
Linsey Hindley and her son Nathan Morrison, who has been cared for by The United Arc for multiple periods over the past two decades, both described living environments that did not properly meet Morrison’s needs when he returned to the organization’s care in 2019.
“There was no quality of life at all,” said Hindley, who sat next to Morrison. “He had no access to the church. You wouldn’t drive him to his friends or family. ”
Hindley did not want to send her son back into the care of The United Arc, but it was “the only place approved by the Department of Developmental Services.” She said Morrison was placed in a residential group for wheelchair and non-verbal people.
“It was definitely not a suitable place for him,” she said. “They just dumped it there.”
Morrison described his life situation at The United Arc as “terrible and very unfriendly”. He said the organization did not meet his needs and had taken away some of his favorite social activities. Hindley added that Morrison was not allowed to use the stove or coffee maker even though he had the experience and ability to do so.
“Yup,” said Morrison when asked if he thought The United Arc had let him down. “I have to go to arc cookouts and art nights. I had a good time (before). ”
However, Hindley said she never had any issues with The United Arc for years until Bielecki was hired.
“It hasn’t been a good two years,” said Hindley. “It’s hard because you trust an agency … then suddenly I haven’t trusted a single person.”
Like Lemoine, Hindley said that the guilt is twofold, with both The United Arc and the Department of Developmental Services to blame.
“DDS should have acted much earlier,” said Hindley. “I blame them as much as I blame The Arc.”
Former Executive Director Ed Porter, now based in Maine, said it was disheartening to hear of the loss of contracts from The United Arc because his “identity was so closely tied to the organization” and he couldn’t believe the news, when he heard her.
“I don’t know the specifics of the situation, but I was deeply concerned about it. … You don’t spend 40 years of your life doing something and let someone destroy it in six years, ”Porter said in a telephone interview. “It makes me very sad that she destroyed the organization. I think I am legitimate in this feeling. ”
Porter, who said he was not involved in hiring his successor, said he hoped The United Arc can put the pieces back together and try to continue the mission it set out to do when it was founded.
“I don’t know what’s left in the Arc,” Porter said. “I hope it can be raised from the ashes as a kind of phoenix.”
Chris Larabee can be reached at [email protected] or 413-930-4081.