Sagamore Patient: They Understand Me
Sarah Scott, a patient at Sagamore Children’s Psychiatric Center in Dix Hills, had a full day planned of activities planned for Sunday, including a trip to the salon for a hair dye and straightening. As he does nearly every weekend, Andrew Scott, Sarah’s uncle, picked up his niece from the inpatient facility to spend the day off campus and take her to her Huntington Station home to spend time with her mother.
Since Sarah’s intake in March, Andrew’s 4-mile commute from his home to the Dix Hills center has become an afterthought; an easy, accessible trip that allows him to visit his niece almost every week.
“It’s a gift,” the uncle said of the drive.
The thought of Sarah moving to live at a facility in the Bronx—which could happen as part of a proposed plan offered by the New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH) that calls for Sagamore’s closure in July—is a burden in every way, and not only to Sarah and her family. It would not only inconvenience parents, but also the children, who will be relocated from a familiar suburb to a removed, urban area.
“It’s traumatic for a child, taking them really, out of their home territory… It’s increasing the geographical and metaphorical distance from their parents,” Andrew said.
As part of the OMH plan, which affects psychiatric facilities throughout the state, all 54 inpatient beds at Sagamore will be consolidated into a Regional Center of Excellence (RCE) in the Bronx or Queens.
Before landing a bed at Sagamore, Sarah attended two public, two state and one federally funded school before she was taken off a waiting list in March. At the age of 16, Sarah said she feels like she’s understood for the first time in her life.
“At Sagamore they support you in every way and help you through all of your tough times and tough moments and family problems. Other hospitals don’t listen and blame you for everything. Here they support you and find a way to get you through it every day,” Sarah said while standing outside of Sagamore on Sunday.
According to Andrew, 44, Sarah began exhibiting antisocial behavior when she was 4 years old. When it became apparent the behavior was consistent, she was diagnosed with juvenile onset bipolar disorder, her uncle said.
A Huntington Station resident, Sarah first enrolled in the South Huntington Public School District’s Countrywood Primary Center. But, because of her aberrant behavior in the second grade, Sarah was forced to withdraw from the mainstream school system, marking the first of many transitions between schools.
Sarah attended three different BOCES institutions, enrolled first at the James E. Allen Elementary School, then an alternative middle school program in Elwood, followed by Brennan Middle/High School; and later, Harmony Heights Residential & Day School for Girls, a federally funded school for “behaviorally and emotionally disturbed girls.”
Each one of those educational and social transitions, Andrew said, was accompanied by a visit to South Oaks Hospital, an Amityville-based mental health facility where Sarah would stay while she adjusted to various medications.
“At each one of those schools ultimately, something would happen. There would be a misunderstanding or an argument, and every six months she would end up going to South Oaks,” Andrew said. “They tried very hard there, but it’s not a very therapeutic environment. It was almost like a holding pen.”
South Oaks, Andrew said, was not an insufficient facility; but the quality of service doesn’t hold a candle to the care Sarah has received at Sagamore. In fact, he added, it was a South Oaks social worker who made the effort last December to get Sarah a bed at Sagamore. After a three-month wait, Sagamore was within reach, and results came quickly.
“Within weeks [of living at Sagamore] we saw a tremendous change in her behavior,” Andrew said.
Since her admittance in March, Sarah has lost 60 pounds, improved her self-confidence and shows a greater interest in learning, according to her uncle.
Sagamore’s collaborative “team” approach – comprised of at least one psychologist, psychiatrists, teachers and social workers working together to treat Sarah – has been invaluable, her uncle said. On a daily basis, Sarah receives academic instruction aligned with her 11th grade curriculum, from reading to geometry. Like many of her peers, Sarah is worried about how she will perform on the state Regents exams.
“One of the first things she said is that one of the psychologists there really tried to understand her. She felt like she was being understood… Sagamore really kind of pinned her down and tried to find out what was going on,” the uncle said.
Sarah’s behavior still fluctuates from mild to aggressive, Andrew said, but her experience at Sagamore has become an integral part of her development into adulthood.
The OMH announced plans in July to “merge” 24 long-term, in-patient care facilities throughout New York into 15 RCE facilities, which would focus less on inpatient care and more on community integration services. The RCE plan would have devastating plans for patients and families receiving services from Sagamore, and local groups have surfaced in force to combat the prospect of closure.
Sarah, whose uncle said wants to work with animals, is scheduled to transfer this December to a group home for young adults in Westbury.
Without Sagamore, Andrew believes that his niece would probably still be dealing with the same issues she was faced with as a young child, and possibly living at home where she can be a danger to herself and others.
“It’s really an incredible repairer for kids here on Long Island,” he said. “A place like Sagamore should not be closed, but I would say the opposite—it should be made bigger.”