Weekly Feature

2016-08-11 / Local News

Center advocates rebut commissioner’s claims

by JENNIFER WATERS West Seneca Editor

Advocates of Save Our Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center are once again going to bat against the state in the fight to keep the West Seneca center open for children.

(See editorial on page four)

Ann Marie Sullivan, commissioner for the Office of Mental Health, indicated in a recent letter to Mario Cilento, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, that the state is planning to relocate the children’s center to a separate unit for children on the Buffalo Psychiatric Center campus, which currently houses adults.

Sullivan’s letter, which was provided to The Bee from the advocate group, said there are no significant actions underway for the campus at this time.

“The 2016-2017 State Budget agreement stipulates that [the Office of Mental Health] continue operating the [Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center] West Seneca facility at its current capacity for the entire fiscal year. During this time, there will be no transfer of census, nor is there any intent to limit admissions to the facility in West Seneca,” Sullivan said.

The West Seneca Children’s Psychiatric Center serves emotionally disturbed children between the ages of 4 and 18 years. The center opened in 1970 and serves children from 19 Western New York counties.

Advocates have written a response to Sullivan’s letter regarding the consolidation plan for children to be moved into the adult facility on the Buffalo campus, stating that Sullivan provides “patently false information.”

“The Office of Mental Health has yet to respond to any of the questions regarding safety, adequacy of staffing and risk management for the move. These questions were submitted during summer 2015 as part of the official stakeholder comment period through both verbal communication at hearings, legislators and on the online portal. None of us have received any response from the Office of Mental Health regarding our concerns,” stated advocates in their response.

Hearings on the issue have been held since January 2015.

Mental health providers, advocates, legislators and former patients have testified that they feel the move is a foolish cost-cutting measure that will negatively impact the most vulnerable population they have sworn to protect, the letter said.

According to advocates, legislators in all involved districts have opposed the move based on constituent feedback, and former patients have testified at all hearings regarding the traumatic experiences they have had when engaging with mentally ill adults in co-located settings.

Sullivan assures in her letter that at the time of relocation, there will be no sex offenders on the Buffalo Campus.

“Let me assure you that all inpatient treatment, education, and recreation spaces have been designed for youth, and will be completely separate from the adult services on the Buffalo campus,” Sullivan said in the letter, which noted that consistent with all other [Office of Mental Health] campuses with child and adult inpatient services, there will be no commingling of these populations.

Advocates argue that neither Sullivan nor the Office of Mental Health has yet to share adequate staffing plans, security features, or policies and procedures to back this claim, adding that in 2015 alone there were 56 incidents in which people left the adult facility without notification or supervision.

Another issue advocates took with Sullivan’s letter is the claim that the campus has been designed with the involvement of community stakeholders.

Advocates said in their letter that they were not allowed to voice opposition to the move at any of the meetings, or discuss the premise or safety of the move, but rather were asked to comment on paint colors and the style of the physical plant.

Sullivan said in her letter that the “state-of-the-art capital space” has been designed in consultation with community stakeholders, including those opposed to the relocation.

“The design plans for the new children’s facility were thoroughly reviewed with the public in a transparent, open, and collaborative process,” Sullivan said.

Advocates instead claim that the Office of Mental Health stacked stakeholder meetings with staff in programs funded by the state.

“This doesn’t make families and patients feel that the children will be safe,” advocates said. “This is the first any advocates or community leaders have heard of such a plan.”

Sullivan also stated in her letter that relocation of inpatient capacity will allow the Office of Mental Health to use the savings associated with the move to make significant investments in community services and supports for hundreds of additional children and families in Western New York.

“New York State has already ‘pre-invested’ $1.7 million in the 2014-15 state fiscal year for Western New York children’s services, and an additional $1.5 million will be available once the relocation has occurred,” she said.

This money is anticipated to be saved from the children’s center if the state were to “spend significant sums to address costly deficiencies with the existing structure,” Sullivan said.

“The [Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center] West Seneca building has not seen any global improvements to structure, finishes or systems since it opened in 1969; the short- and long-term costs of remaining on this campus are both inefficient and avoidable,” Sullivan said in the letter.

According to documentation provided by advocates to The Bee, a number of improvements have been made to the facility during this time, the most recent being renovations to the gymnasium in 2016 and resurfacing of multiple roadways and parking lots in 2015.

Other improvements include rebuilt boilers and new pump motors in 2014; upgrades to the gymnasium in 2013; office and bedroom renovations in 2011; new electrical service, water main hookup and backflow building in 2010; new fencing in two courtyards in 2009; a new public address system and a renovated education department in 2008; and new rubber membrane roof, metal mansards and soffits in 2005.

The documentation states that this facility is the second lowest energy costing of all Office of Mental Health facilities, averaging $1.42 per square foot.

Sullivan also said in her letter that a review of the Office of Mental Health’s admissions data shows that a relocation will move services closer to the majority of children and families served by the children’s center.

“Nearly half of our admissions are children from the City of Buffalo, with the next largest population coming from Niagara County; areas both closer to the [Office of Mental Health] Buffalo campus than West Seneca,” she said.

She further stated that a Buffalo location would improve access to outlying areas of Western New York, given the availability of public transportation.

According to advocates, families living in Niagara County have not supported a move to the Buffalo campus.

“Through 2014, less than 25 percent of total admissions have been from Buffalo. There is not one former youth or parent that has testified at the hearings and legislative roundtables that prefers the proposed location,” advocates said in their response.

More information about the center is available at saveourwnycpc.org. To contact the Save Our Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center advocates, email saveourwesternnewyorkCPC@gmail.com.

Sullivan can be reached in her office by calling (518) 474-4403.

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