Weekly Feature

2015-06-04 / Local News

Patients offer testimony on WNY Children’s Psychiatric Center

State looks at combining with Buffalo Psychiatric
West Seneca Editor

Children, parents, advocates and mental health professionals offered testimony at Buffalo City Hall on Friday in an effort to encourage the state to keep the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center open in West Seneca.

A hearing was held by the State Committee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities on children’s mental health services.

Emotional attendees spoke out in favor of the Children’s Center, expressing gratitude for the help they received and fear for children potentially being placed with adults in the Buffalo center.

Natalia Quevado spoke of her trouble with anxiety and depression. She was hospitalized for the first time in September 2013 at BryLin, a mental health treatment facility in Buffalo. While she was at BryLin, the only view Quevado had from the windows were of the city and people going about their day.

“The city is not helpful for kids who already feel isolated from the world,” she said. “I know the commissioner said the Buffalo Psychiatric Center would have outdoor activities, but how do you make outdoor activities private in such a busy city on such a busy corner?”

Quevado also spoke of the activities she was able to experience outdoors and the freedom she had to move around and be active while at the Children’s Center.

“I’m a kid, not an adult, and I deserve treatment away from adults, not near them,” Quevado said.

There has been talk from the state of closing the children’s facility and reducing the number of beds available for children. Each advocate shared his or her appreciation for the Children’s Center and the hope that the number of beds would not be reduced, possibly costing a child’s life.

Allison Scanlon said that when she and her family heard the center might be closed, they decided it was important to get involved. She said the decision was difficult for her son, Vernon, who was hospitalized at the Children’s Center.

Scanlon said he was hospitalized multiple times at different psychiatric facilities before being admitted to the Children’s Center.

“One was at [Erie County Medical Center] well before they had a children’s unit there,” Scanlon said. “He was placed in with the adults, I had to stay with him. There were prisoners in there who were shackled and troopers in there who were guarding them for the entire night. He sat on my lap, and I just wrapped around him. That was our first experience with a psychiatric unit, and we were terrified by it.”

After the traumatic experience her son endured, she said it was worth the wait to get him into the Children’s Center.

Scanlon spoke of seeing her son in a Christmas pageant at the center, his first time participating in a group activity, singing onstage, and she began to cry.

“Unless you have lived it you cannot understand it,” Scanlon said. “Infrastructure mattered in his treatment and in the healing of our families.”

Vernon said with a shaky voice that he was disappointed when he learned the state intends to close the Children’s Center.

“If you close this facility, I hope you know what you’re doing because you may have destroyed the future of a lot of patients and their parents,” he said. “I do not want my daughter, if she develops my disabilities, to have to go to the [Buffalo Psychiatric Center]. It is a scary place, and I would worry about her being in with adults who are mentally ill.”

He said the Children’s Center is a place designed for children to heal and they should be left alone.

Ann Marie Sullivan, the commissioner of the state Office of Mental Health, spoke during the hearing and said the state has already invested $1.5 million into strengthening and improving the mental health services it offers. Transitioning children into the Buffalo Psychiatric Center would mean additional funds available to focus on expanding treatments.

She assured families that children and adults would not have contact in the Buffalo facility and safeguards would be put in place to ensure their security.

Sullivan also stated that being in Buffalo would afford the children city experiences.

“These trips are therapeutic,” she said. “We have run extensive services for children in urban settings without issue. I believe it can be done well in an urban setting and we can do a good job in Buffalo.”

Marissa Divincenzo, a self-advocate, said she was hospitalized at Elmira Psychiatric, one of Sullivan’s examples of urban facilities that work. Divincenzo said she did see adults during her time in Elmira.

“Oftentimes it brought a lot of hopelessness,” she said.

A former patient of the Children’s Center, she left in July 2013 after a long journey with depression, anxiety and mood disorders. Divincenzo recently enrolled in college and now works part time.

She is also an advocate for the center, returning frequently to speak to children currently hospitalized there.

She describes her first time entering the Children’s Center, with its bright windows, airy space and colorful handprints on the bricks of the walls, immediately distinguishing it from other hospitals.

“It gave me a sense of hope — something I hadn’t felt in a very, very long time,” Divincenzo said. “My concern is not just for me but for all the kids. My handprint is on the wall. That handprint symbolizes the hard work and the journey and the struggles that I overcame when I walked out of there.”

Before entering the Children’s Center, Divincenzo said she had attempted suicide and self-harmed for many years throughout her stays at other facilities.

Melanie Porter’s sister was like Divincenzo, who found solace and comfort upon entering the Children’s Center.

“They helped my family out of crisis mode and to a place of healing and hope,” Porter said.

Many have spoken of peaceful visits to the campus, distanced from the bustle and chaos of the city, where children can be surrounded and comforted by nature. Porter referred to the campus as a safe haven for healing.

She said the proximity and possibility for her sister to observe nature and to be aware of the world outside the center aided her healing.

“Ensuring services geared toward adolescents and children is a matter of life or death,” Porter said, asking what will happen to these services if changes have to be made throughout the consolidation process.

As an intern at the Children’s Center, Heather Radzikowski said she was inspired by the activities made available to the children hospitalized there.

“I was able to see kids attend recreational therapy, and occasionally, I would show up and forget where I was because the kids were enjoying themselves. I also got to see kids put on assemblies in the auditorium with a smile on their faces and laughter from the audience. I felt as if this was a community for the children,” she said.

Her sister was later hospitalized at the Children’s Center.

“When she was first admitted to the Western New York Child’s Psych Center, we had a meeting with staff to go over what to expect, as well as all of her information. This first meeting calmed me and made us both feel much more comfortable,” she said.

The family was able to visit her sister and take walks outside.

“My sister went from kicking and screaming, begging me not to make her go, to advocating that the facility saved her life,” Radzikowski said.

Going forward, Sullivan said, she hopes the process can be open and transparent, inviting community input and involvement in planning for a transition.

email: jwaters@beenews.com

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