ADVERTISEMENT

To save money, a state agency intends to move dozens of children from the specially built Children’s Psychiatric Center in West Seneca back to the Buffalo Psychiatric Center. There, like decades ago, they will share a busy urban campus with adult patients.

Parents, state lawmakers and state employees have urged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Office of Mental Health to reverse course, arguing that children ages 4 to 18 now receive excellent care in West Seneca – just as state leaders intended in 1970 when they opened a separate facility for the region’s emotionally disturbed children.

“This is nothing against the adults who live there,” Mary Skorupa said of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center. “That is their home. They should be able to do what they need to do to live.”

Skorupa is executive director of the Children’s Mental Health Coalition of Western New York, and she is concerned about the kids who are to move to the facility on Forest Avenue in Buffalo.

“That doesn’t necessarily create a good environment for our children,” she said of the Buffalo center.

A dozen years ago, the Children’s Psychiatric Center survived when a different governor, George E. Pataki, targeted it for closure. Today, the center’s advocates argue that:

• Amenities important to children would be stretched thin. For example, the youths in West Seneca have sole access to a pool, gymnasium, auditorium and courtyards for play. But in Buffalo, time in the pool, auditorium and gymnasium will be limited so that adults can use them, too.

• While children and adults share the same campus in other state psychiatric centers, children and adults in Buffalo would share the same building. The children will be segregated and have their own entrance and reception center. But staffers predict the children’s wards – which will hold 36 beds rather than the 46 in West Seneca – will lack the space needed to keep teenagers apart from much younger children.

• The risks are high if the children and adults are not constantly separated. Seven sex offenders reside on the Buffalo campus, according to the state’s sex-offender registry. Five were convicted of sex crimes against victims ranging in age from 4 to 17. An Office of Mental Health spokesman stressed that the children will always be in secure wards.

• Children being held against their will consider escaping and will find it easier.

“Pretty much every youth thinks about that at some point,” one former patient said.

A child who escapes in West Seneca faces a long walk off a wide-open campus to reach a bus line. In Buffalo, it will be a simple matter to slip onto a bus traveling Forest or Elmwood avenues.

In addition, the young patients are constantly given hope that they can live free of an institution when they reach adulthood, said Dr. Diana Sanderson, a child psychiatrist at the Children’s Psychiatric Center. But in the Buffalo facility, they might get a different message after seeing many adults not able to live on their own because of serious mental illnesses.

“We work with extremely traumatized children who have abuse of themselves and abuse of other people in their backgrounds. We try to emphasize that things can change,” she said. “I guess that’s my concern with going to a facility with very, very chronically ill people. What kind of impact is that going to have on the children?”

In a statement to The Buffalo News, the Office of Mental Health argued that the services offered in West Seneca can be delivered at the same level and quality for children and families in Buffalo.

Excellent service, the agency said, is not defined by infrastructure nor the size of a campus but by the dedication and expertise of clinicians and staff. The agency said much of the clinical workforce at the Children’s Psychiatric Center will provide care at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, which will become known as the Western Lakes Child and Adult Regional Center of Excellence in Buffalo.

The closing of the Children’s Psychiatric Center sprung from the Office of Mental Health’s plan to further consolidate New York’s 24 remaining psychiatric centers – the most of any state – into 15 regional “centers of excellence” complemented by outpatient programs offered at or around centers that will no longer handle inpatients. The state finds inpatient care at psychiatric centers far more costly than outpatient treatment.

While many people vouch for the value of the Children’s Psychiatric Center, it’s easy to see why it’s a big target for cost-cutting. About $20 million is spent running the center each year, and it typically receives about 130 children annually. That equates to a cost of about $154,000 for each child.

But even Cuomo has acknowledged other factors besides dollars and cents. Early in December, the governor agreed to keep open psychiatric centers in Binghamton, Elmira and St. Lawrence County in response to arguments from state legislators who said the closings would create a vacuum in services that would shortchange patients and families.

“We should be listening to the experts, not the bean counters,” said Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, a South Buffalo Democrat who is among those lawmakers trying to save the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center. “When you have an institution that works, that the families like, and you have proven results, that’s what we should be making the decision on. Not a short-term plan."

Nearly every state legislator whose district touches Erie or Niagara counties signed a letter to Cuomo suggesting he rethink his plans for the Children’s Psychiatric Center: “Moving these children into an adult setting – an unprecedented commingling of age groups in the State of New York – would not be therapeutically beneficial and may in fact be detrimental,” the letter said.

The West Seneca Town Board, the Association of Erie County Governments and the Erie County Legislature adopted statements urging Cuomo to keep the Children’s Psychiatric Center. State Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma, cosponsored a bill to keep all the targeted psychiatric centers open until April 2015 so a different plan can be devised.

The Children’s Psychiatric Center, which ranks high in many of the state’s quality measures, sees fewer patients returning than any other psychiatric center in New York. In part, that’s because families are included in the treatment regimes as much as possible, says Patricia M. Moran, who coordinates volunteer programs at the facility and is the shop steward for the Public Employees Federation, which represents most of the center’s employees.

“Most of our kids don’t end up back here, or in the adult system, and they end up living productive lives,” she said when asked about the average cost of $154,000 a child. “Sometimes you can’t put money on somebody’s recovery, especially if that recovery means they find a job, pay taxes, go to school. Some of our kids have had horrific lives.”

Many of the children admitted in West Seneca are reeling from abandonment, abuse, neglect or bullying. The center is their last and best hope, she said. If they could be home safely, they would be in an outpatient program.

The emotional problems experienced by Allison Scanlon’s son, a bullied 9-year-old who was hearing voices and asking about ways to kill himself, sent her and her husband searching for a secure setting in which he could find a path toward recovery.

They believe they found it at the Children’s Psychiatric Center. Today, he’s married with a daughter.

“How thankful we were to CPC for helping our family and teaching our son that he could begin to trust people again,” Allison Scanlon wrote in a letter circulated to state lawmakers and the governor. “My husband is now deceased, but CPC made a difference in our family. It kept us a family.”

Erin Herman was 16 when she was placed in the Children’s Psychiatric Center because she was depressed and considering suicide.

“I was definitely one of those youth who needed a secure place to be that was safe,” she said “I definitely think it’s important to have psychiatric hospitalization because some kids can’t get through it at home. It’s too dangerous.”

She remained there for a year, far longer than the average three-month stay.

“They never really gave up or anything,” Herman said. “They just took it at my own pace.”

Today she’s 23, is a peer mentor at BryLin Hospital and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

The Children’s Psychiatric Center’s architecture is reminiscent of a suburban elementary school. A one-story building with linoleum floors and cinder-block walls, it contains more than 100,000 square feet set on 72 acres near the former West Seneca Developmental Center.

Inside, the psychiatric center devotes a wing to classroom instruction. It has eight courtyards for recreation, rooms for the young people to be alone to decompress and rooms for parents and their children to talk.

Throughout, the walls are adorned with the handprints of hundreds of former patients and their written farewells.

From Gino: “Never, never give up.”

Alyssa: “Thank you for helping me CPC!”

Sara: “Anything is possible if you just believe.”

And Ryan: “Ain’t no stopping me now.”

email: mspina@buffnews.com