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Unrest Over Closing Of Sagamore Center 

From left, Manny Miguel, president of Pilgrim Psychiatric Center Employees; Richard LaMorte, region one president of CSEA; and Peter Marriottt, president of Sagamore Children’s Center Employees testify Monday at a public hearing at Farmingdale State College to oppose the state’s plan to close Sagamore Children’s Psychiatric Center in Dix Hills.

Imagine your child gets sick with a fever and the only doctor who can treat him practices from an office in Queens, a 45-minute commute from home. Imagine your child needed to stay in Queens for treatment for several days, forcing you to drive another 30 miles every day for one week just to see your child’s treatment through.

Now imagine your child is mentally ill, and the only place he can receive two to six months of in-patient treatment is in the Bronx or in Queens. Doctors are suggesting video communication as an alternative to visiting your child.

The above scenario is a daunting reality for parents and children who receive mental health care from Sagamore Children’s Psychiatric Center in Dix Hills. Families learned July 10 that in one year’s time, the treatment center will close.

The New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH) announced this summer plans to consolidate 24 long-term, in-patient care centers throughout the state into 15 Regional Centers of Excellence (RCE). When Sagamore closes in July 2014, the closest in-patient childhood treatment facility will be 30 miles away, either in the Bronx or in Queens.

Center employees, parents, and more than a dozen members of the State Senate and Assembly gathered Monday at Farmingdale State College to sound off on the state’s plan for Sagamore’s closure. The majority of speakers were strongly opposed to the state’s “community-based” model.

The hearing is the first of several to be held by the Assembly and Senate Standing Committees on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, as well as the Senate Standing Committee on Health.

Sagamore currently has 54 in-patient beds for children ages 9-17 with severe mental illness; it lost 15 beds in May 2012 to state cuts. Most patients stay at Sagamore anywhere from two to six months before transitioning back into their home communities.

In a press release, OMH Acting Commissioner Kristin Woodlock said the consolidation plan marks the dawn of a new era of how the state thinks about mental health.

The RCE model will “shift the emphasis of its resources from costly long-term in-patient treatment” to a “state-operated community-based service” with community service “hubs… in geographically distinct areas of the region.”

“Working together with communities, we can and will change the outdated and costly way we serve individuals with mental illness,” Woodlock said.

If not properly cared for, children who would typically be treated at Sagamore can be considered a threat not only to the community but also to their own families, according to Executive Director of NuHealth Family Health Centers Arthur Cusack.

“As much as I’d like to think we can do everything in the community, patients do degrade to a point where they do need an in-patient facility. Hospitals are not equipped to care for mental health,” Cusack said.

The OMH’s transition plan for most of the 24 in-patient hospitals will occur over the next three years as part of a multi-year plan which the state said provides the “needed time for community-level planning and priority setting.” The state, however, has not provided any public indication as to why Sagamore will close in one and not three years and why it is one of the first centers on the state’s chopping block.

Opponents of Sagamore’s closure said the facility is a rare gem in the state’s mental health system, providing an array of behavioral, emotional, educational, nutritional and peer supports, that treats patients on a holistic level.

According to Jennifer Colon, a secure care therapy aid at Sagamore, a family’s proximity to their child’s place of treatment is crucial to a successful recovery.

Peter Marriott, president of Sagamore Children’s Center Employees, added that the services offered at Sagamore are irreplaceable.

“Kids require intense and comprehensive treatment. In-patient teams of nurses, psychologists, teachers, therapists, mental health aides and child care workers all ensure an integrated approach to providing an integrated environment, and it works,” Marriott said.

“To commute to the city is infeasible,” Colon said. “A key factor to children’s recovery is keeping families involved, and the parents are very upset… Sagamore is a stepping stone, and part of the transition back into the community is having a place locally based.”

Michael Mensch, CEO and district superintendent of Western Suffolk BOCES, said the state should be duplicating the example set by Sagamore rather than deleting it.

“Children are in treatment, but they are also contributing to their education,” Mensch said. “There’s a level of interaction that’s critical to a kid’s security, and the thought of going to visit a child in Queens or the Bronx – It’s not going to happen.”

After their stay at Sagamore, patients, with the help of staff members, usually successfully transition back into the school system and community.

Mensch also believes that when they are relocated, fewer families will agree to short-term in-patient care.

“The notion to be relocated is…simply frightening. Fewer families will agree to short-term care resulting in children leaving the hospital [early] and entering the school system with greater [tendency toward] suicide and violence… No alternatives have been offered for the Sagamore program,” Mensch said.

Sagamore has treated more than 150 kids from 60 different school districts in the last three years, Mensch added.

When Sagamore closes, there will be no state-operated in-patient children’s hospital for 104 miles from Montauk to Queens. At the time of the state’s July announcement, Sagamore had a waiting list of at least 15-20 children from local hospitals.

Richard LaMorte, CSEA Region I president, was disappointed with the plan.

“It is disingenuous to take those in need of mental health services and have them shipped all over the state. We need a blueprint, not a press release or sound bytes,” LaMorte said.

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