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School administrators vehemently opposed to plan to close children inpatient services at SLPC

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OGDENSBURG - School administrators and mental health professionals are voicing opposition to the planned closure of inpatient mental health services at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, fearing that sending children to hospitals downstate will discourage parents from seeking treatment for their children.

The state Office of Mental Health has proposed closing inpatient services in Ogdensburg, instead sending patients to facilities downstate and shifting treatment to community-based care.

The move will seriously damage the already fragile mental health care infrastructure in the north country, St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services Special Education Supervisor Reggie E. McDonald said.

Mr. McDonald, who is primarily responsible for the Potsdam area, said there are roughly 500 kids in St. Lawrence County who are hospitalized in the psychiatric center’s Children and Youth Unit each year.

The psychiatric center’s 28-bed children’s unit is already often at capacity, Mr. McDonald said, with kids who need that level of care being diverted to hospitals in Plattsburgh, Saratoga, Utica or wherever room can be found.

Mr. McDonald said that under the current circumstances many parents are hesitant to seek treatment for their kids if they know they will be sent out of the county.

“I fight to get them at SLPC so that their families can have access to them,” Mr. McDonald said, adding that because of the region’s economic realities, “our families don’t have the ability to travel to be with their child [when they go farther away].”

On a regular basis, Mr. McDonald said, he travels with students to undergo mental health evaluation at Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center, Ogdensburg, so that he can help secure a bed for them at the psychiatric center.

“I have parents who will specifically request that I go to the hospital so I can force the issue,” Mr. McDonald said.

If the inpatient facility in Ogdensburg is closed, Mr. McDonald said, the state would be “setting up a situation where parents are not even going to seek treatment. Who wants to see their kids taken away?”

That sentiment was echoed by Ogdensburg City School District Superintendent Timothy M. Vernsey, who said the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center is “the only place really that we have where we can send children with psychiatric needs. With that being gone the access would be a major issue.”

“My suspicion is that if parents have to choose between putting gas in their car to get back and forth to appointments in Utica or put food on the table they’re going to put food on the table,” Mr. Vernsey said.

Nancy J. Avery, director of the St. Lawrence-Lewis special education program, said because the services currently in place are not meeting the needs of the region, any reduction would be destructive.

“[School administrators] are concerned already because there is already a wait list,” she said. “What’s going to happen when we don’t have this local access? Because of the distance, families might not seek treatment.”

North country schools have come to rely on the services at the psychiatric center. Schools have a close relationship with teachers employed there who enable students receiving mental health treatment to stay on top of their course work.

“They basically go to school there while they are receiving their treatment and [psychiatric center employees] work very closely with us,” Mr. Vernsey said. “It provides a very important service.”

Potsdam Central School Superintendent Patrick H. Brady said, “In general there is a lack of mental health services in the north country, and I think in particular for children. We’re very concerned about a further reduction of services.”

St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES District Superintendent and Executive Officer Thomas R. Burns agreed with Mr. Brady.

“We don’t have enough mental health services, especially for children and adolescents to begin with, even with the SLPC up and running,” Mr. Burns said.

Office of Mental Health spokesman Benjamin Rosen said in an email message that plans for the future of crisis mental health treatment for children and adults in the north country will be finalized in the coming days by the Regional Centers of Excellence Steering Committee.

The steering committee will be responsible for gathering recommendations from five regional committees on how to implement the OMH’s goal of focusing on community-based care and cutting inpatient services.

The plan calls for establishing centralized “Centers of Excellence” that would have inpatient facilities. Under the plan, the Ogdensburg inpatient units will merge with hospitals in Syracuse and Utica to form the Central New York Regional Center of Excellence.

Vice President of Clinical Services and Chief Operating Officer at Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center Vicki E. Perrine, who co-chairs the Central New York Regional Centers of Excellence team, said the teams are presenting their recommendations to OMH Thursday.

Mrs. Perrine said although details are still sparse, teams will be recommending that the OMH bolsters school-based mental health care in the event they close the inpatient facilities in Ogdensburg.

“Then we have to determine what funding is available,” she said.

But, Mr. McDonald said, “Nothing can replace inpatient care.”

Mr. McDonald said it’s unrealistic to have wellness centers in every school where students who are in the midst of severe psychotic episodes are pulled out of class, evaluated, and sent back to class.

“It’s not a therapeutic environment where they are going to truly get to the root of what’s bothering them,” he said.

And it will mean fewer people getting treatment, Mr. Vernsey said.

“There is no way that this [plan] is going to better mental health services in the north country,” he said. “It’s been a terrible idea right from the start.”

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