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Moving Children’s Psychiatric Center holds the promise of better overall care

An emotionally wrenching debate is underway in Erie County regarding treatment for children requiring mental health services. The State Office of Mental Health wants to relocate children from a rural setting in West Seneca to a secure facility in Buffalo, while reducing per-patient costs and increasing community-based services.

Opponents, including lawmakers and the impassioned parents of those being treated in the bucolic setting of the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center, want to keep the 72-acre site open.

No one can be entirely wrong in a debate like this, but the Office of Mental Health makes a compelling case that children needing mental health services would ultimately be better off under its plans for change – assuming its facts and promises and projections to be correct. And in the end, of course, the needs of children in crisis have to be the driver in this decision.

Fundamentally, the OMH argues that it will be able to increase children’s mental health services in Western New York by moving the patients from West Seneca to the Buffalo campus where adults now receive mental health treatment. Children and adults would share the same building, but would be segregated from each other, beginning with separate entrances and including separate treatment staff.

It’s not unusual for children and adults to share a treatment campus, though opponents of the change say that’s different from sharing a building, even one where the age groups are kept apart. They worry about inadvertent contacts and also about ensuring that children of different levels of maturity are separated. They also note that while it would be more difficult for involuntarily admitted children to escape from the West Seneca campus, it could be as easy as hopping a bus in Buffalo, assuming they were able to leave the campus. Conversely, the OMH argues that a facility in Buffalo and on a bus line will make it easier for family members to visit.

No solution will ever be perfect, but it is important to note that in this effort, the OMH is doing what governments at all levels should be committed to, especially in the high-cost state of New York. Facing all the opposition that change of this kind inevitably produces, it is looking to re-engineer its program to make it more efficient. For anyone who protests the costs of government generally, and particularly in New York, this is a worthwhile effort.

That is a key to evaluating this change. If the OMH invests $3.2 million into new community care, as it has promised to do, and if it can ensure that children are safe and receiving high-quality treatment, then its proposal becomes very attractive. Indeed, the OMH has made many promises regarding this change, including security, staffing and investment. It will need to keep them all.

Opponents are unyielding, and given that for many of them, their children will be those most immediately affected, that’s understandable. Their concerns should be taken seriously.

Those concerns not unreasonably include that the population of adults in treatment at the Buffalo campus includes sex offenders whose victims have been under 17 years old. The OMH counters that children will always be in secure wards and that special window treatments will prevent sex offenders from being able to watch children in outdoor recreation areas.

Opponents also worry about limited time in shared amenities, including a pool and gymnasium. More amorphously, opponents worry that seeing adults in treatment will erode children’s confidence that they will live free of an institution when they reach adulthood.

That’s certainly possible, and it is something to consider. But the risk has to be weighed against the promise of new investment and better treatments for children whose lives depend upon it.

This will not be an uncomplicated decision, but while change is usually stressful, it can also be useful, even when passions are high. The leaders of the OMH seem committed to making that kind of change. Lawmakers, parents and other interest groups should look more carefully at this plan to see if their unwavering devotion to the West Seneca facility might actually be a disservice to the suffering children in the region.