Sagamore children's psych center cuts 'would be devastating,' LI parents say
Long Island parents and mental health professionals are trying to convince the state not to close Sagamore Children's Psychiatric Center's inpatient beds.
Several weeks ago, the Office of Mental Health unfolded a plan to overhaul the state's mental health services by merging the state's 24 inpatient psychiatric hospitals into 15 "regional centers of excellence" to focus more on community-based services.
On Long Island, the plan is that next July Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood, designated a regional center, will lose 39 beds for adults and Sagamore in Dix Hills will lose all 54 of its beds.
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Instead, children needing inpatient psychiatric treatment care will go to psychiatric facilities in Queens or the Bronx, and community services will be expanded, including intensive, individualized wraparound services designed to treat more troubled children at home.
But many parents and mental health professionals say that Sagamore is a unique Long Island resource that provides help to children who are too ill to remain at home and need longer-term institutionalized care. They say they do not want to lose the beds that are closer to home.
Amy Luccese, a single working mother of three from Lake Ronkonkoma, said that trying to visit her son, who is now in Sagamore, in Queens or the Bronx would be close to impossible. "I don't see the logic of closing a facility like this," she said. "It would be devastating."
Luccese said that her 15-year-old son entered the Dix Hills facility in February "withdrawn, angry and aggressive" and refusing to go to school. Like many other children who end up there, he had been in and out of psychiatric units at other hospitals for weeks at a time -- once after becoming so violent police had to be called to the house.
But Luccese said, it wasn't until he entered Sagamore, which has a rigorous, structured program with a 3-staff-to-1-child ratio and full-time school, that he began to show progress. Now, she said, he has finished the ninth grade -- on the honor roll. And, she said, he has made friends.
"He's comfortable there," she said. "He's coming out of his shell."
Patti Zerafa, of East Patchogue, is adamant that Sagamore should not lose its inpatient beds. In 2006, her son spent 11 months there after three previous hospitalizations at other facilities, and until this May, she served for three years as the facility's parent advocate.
"It's outrageous they're trying to take it away," she said. "They're making out like they're doing a service when what they're doing is a disservice."
Robert Detor, chief executive of South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, which has 62 beds for children and adolescents, said Sagamore has filled a critical need. Most children stay at his facility for 14 to 18 days, compared with an average stay of three to four months at Sagamore. Last year, he said, South Oaks referred 67 children to Sagamore.
"Sagamore has been a real asset to the Long Island community," he said. "It's a very good hospital. It's a shame to lose such a resource."
Detor said he's not opposed to the state's goal to keep mentally ill children in their homes and community as much as possible. But, he said, he's not convinced that the necessary services will be in place to do that, especially since many of those who come to Sagamore have already had intensive community services and hospitalizations at places such as South Oaks.
Dennis Dubey, who was executive director of Sagamore from 2003 to 2011, said Sagamore "is part of the continuum of care. It's really not a matter of either-or." He called the state's decision to close the beds "quite puzzling."
"It's beyond me to figure out how this makes sense on Long Island," he said, adding that there's usually a waiting list for Sagamore as well as for the city's children psychiatric facilities.
So far, 2,000 have signed a petition on change.org calling for keeping Sagamore's beds.
But the Office of Mental Health said 52 percent of Sagamore's inpatients last year came from Family Court. "Many of these particular youth can and should be served on an outpatient basis in the community," according to the office. "This situation is unique to Long Island, is not an appropriate use of hospital beds, and will change under the Regional Centers of Excellence plan."
Dubey's response is that beside the fact they got referred by the court, "many of these children have very similar problems and histories" compared with the other 48 percent.
As for whether there will be enough beds for children from both Long Island and the city in the Queens and Bronx facilities, the state said there would be. And, the mental health office said, it "will enhance and expand community services in both the Dix Hills and Brentwood areas via newly created community hubs."
For those parents who would find it difficult to travel into the city to visit their child, the state said it "will examine all options to enable parents to be closer to their children," including providing "a concierge service, transportation assistance, a hospitality house and video conferencing."
State Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City), chairman of the Senate's health committee, said he wants to convene a roundtable to discuss the plan. "The question is what is the network? How sure are we that the care is there?" he said.
Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) said that he understood "the state's position to find the least restrictive environment and invest in community-based treatment." But, he said, "being from Long Island -- particularly eastern Long Island where mental health services are already hard to come by -- the possibility of having to travel to Queens or the Bronx is not good."
Thiele said he is speaking with other legislators. "I think members of the legislature will look very closely at this," he said.