ALBANY – The head of the state’s mental health agency on Monday found herself defending, again, a plan to close the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center in West Seneca and move its patients and staff to the Buffalo Psychiatric Center.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo first proposed the idea in 2013, and skeptical state lawmakers asked Dr. Anne Marie Sullivan about the plan during a hearing by the Senate and Assembly looking into mental hygiene portions of the governor’s new budget plan.
“I just think it’s an abomination,’’ Assemblyman Michael Kearns, a Buffalo Democrat, told Sullivan, the commissioner of the Office of Mental Health.
Sullivan sought to beat back one of the criticisms – that juveniles would be moving onto the Buffalo campus where sex offenders are housed. She said the move, including construction of a new building, would take two years. She said that offers the state plenty of time to find alternatives for the adult sex offenders getting mental health treatment at the Buffalo facility.
“Absolutely,’’ Sullivan said to one lawmaker – Sen. Rob Ortt, a Republican from North Tonawanda – who asked the commissioner for her commitment that the sex offenders would be moved before any adolescents are transferred from West Seneca to Buffalo. Ortt is chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities.
Sullivan told Kearns that three inpatient registered sex offenders had been transferred – she did not say to where – and that one remains at the Buffalo facility. She added it is also treating four sex offenders on an outpatient basis.
“This is an absolute commitment that none of those individuals will be there in the event we move West Seneca to Buffalo,’’ Sullivan told Kearns.
The proposed move has been fought by parents, unions representing workers at West Seneca and others who say the facility was opened in 1968 to give people under age 18 a separate place to receive inpatient mental health care away from adult patients.
The Legislature has rejected the Cuomo plan since he first proposed it in 2013. But late last year, the state issued bids for a $12.5 million facility to be built at the Buffalo site for the placement of adolescents who now go to West Seneca. Bids are due to be returned later this month, though lawmakers are already discussing killing any construction contract during upcoming state budget talks. The West Seneca center serves patients from 19 counties.
Sullivan said closing West Seneca, where patients stay an average of two months, would put patients there now closer to a range of community-based health care services at Buffalo. She said youth patients at a new Buffalo facility would be kept away from adults with separate treatment areas, entrances and recreation areas.
Ortt told Sullivan that the West Seneca site has the best patient outcomes of any children’s psychiatric center in the state.
“I don’t think quality will diminish,’’ Sullivan said of closing West Seneca in favor of a new children’s facility in Buffalo.
She added that West Seneca, a 46-bed facility, has not been renovated in “many, many years” and needs $40 million in capital funding if it is to remain open for the long term.
Sullivan told Kearns that moving the children’s psychiatric center will make mental health services available to far more children.
“I do appreciate your concerns,’’ she told Kearns. “But to state one more time: Our goal here is to serve even more individuals in Western New York. An additional 1,000 families could be served.’’
The state has estimated it could save $4 million with the move.
West Seneca has been targeted for closure dating back to the administration of former Gov. George Pataki. A community and family group that has fought the shuttering plans over the years – Save Our Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center – has expressed concerns about quality of care being affected by a plan to move the adolescent services from its present 72-acre campus to the adult-focused Buffalo Psychiatric Center, located off Elmwood and Forest avenues.
“The arguments associated with this consolidation continue to be based on specious cost-savings and not on quality of care or improved access for children,’’ the community group said in written testimony provided Monday to the Senate and Assembly fiscal committees.
“Children treated at WNYCPC are facing a litany of issues, including dealing with abuse at the hands of adults. Children must feel supported and safe, treated in a trauma-informed therapeutic environment of care that doesn’t include interacting with or seeing adults. Talk of basic physical safety – which should be a given – misses the point. Traumatized children need to feel safe and secure. Every graduate from CPC we’ve spoken to and every family member has pointed to the warm, nurturing, therapeutic environment of the CPC campus itself, as being a key ingredient in recovery on this campus,’’ the group added.