|Staff say adult psychiatric
center no safe haven for fragile children
Move up the road could leave childrens safety, hope behind
Articles and photos By SHERRY HALBROOK
Sometimes it really does take a village to raise a child, as the now famous African proverb goes.
And a visit to Rockland Childrens Psychiatric Center, brings that message home. For, in a sense, it is a village a village centered around children whose emotional and psychological needs rise above a level their own homes and families can meet.
The approximately 50 children living there at any given time are constantly guided and nurtured by a caring staff of adults including dozens of PEF members.
The youngsters, ages 11-18, usually stay one to six months. But they may remain longer or leave and return months or years later.
This is a very kid-friendly environment, says education supervisor Dorothy Ehrlich a PEF member and director of the centers school program.
Its sad, but we have children who dont want to leave here because its so safe and this is the best place theyve ever been, says Ehrlich, who first came to Rockland 22 years ago as a teachers assistant.
I and many others have stayed because we can tell when weve really reached a child, she says. It makes you feel so good to know that you have made a difference in their life. Often, we stay in touch with them for years after theyve left.
But, now, Ehrlich and many of the other staff are wrapping their arms protectively around this nurturing little village which they fear must be dismantled under the governors proposal to relocate the program to the nearby facility for adults at Rockland Psychiatric Center.
It wont seem like such a safe haven for them up there with the adults. It would be very wrong to move the children there, Ehrlich says.
And that is the crux of the problem, say the professional staff at Rockland Childrens youngsters trying to overcome illness, despair, fear and anxiety need constant reassurance and hope that they will grow up to be healthy, happy adults.
Being immersed in the huge institution designed to treat the states most severely and chronically ill adults cannot inspire much hope, staffers say.
While less than an eighth of a mile separates the two centers, they are entirely different worlds.
The small, welcoming profile of the childrens center contrasts sharply with the sprawling adult hospital surrounded by acres of empty, old buildings that once housed thousands of patients.
Built into the side of a hill, the childrens facility is invisible from the road and barely peeps over the hill at the end of a winding driveway. Even before you see the building, a small garden greets you with an open-work metal sculpture of two open hands.
The childrens center has the feel of a pleasant neighborhood school.
But there are differences. You soon realize that virtually every door is locked. The classes are small and some of the children seem to cry out for attention as they sit heads-down and withdrawn or bound about in an eager effort to please.
These children ordered by the courts to receive this intensive treatment have a variety of serious conditions, including severe depression and schizophrenia. Some have experienced terrible traumas, and some have been abused.
Like Ehrlich, PEF member Dr. Helen Helper, the schools medical doctor for the past 30 years, is deeply concerned about the proposed move.
Its not good, she says. The children see this as a safe, warm, caring environment where they can come to get better and return to if they need it. If we move, it will be unhealthy for the children to see adults who have been there a long time.
Scary for kids, parents
It will be scary for them, says Jeanne Walpole, a nurse and PEF member. These children should not be exposed to that.
It will be scary for the parents, too, according to the centers admission staff who work with families as they struggle with the anxiety of admitting their child to the psychiatric center.
The parents first concern is: Will my child be associating with adult patients? says nurse Joan Berberian.
This facility is really entirely for children, says child psychiatrist Dr. Josefina Moneda. The parents and the children are somewhat reassured by seeing this place and meeting us. I do not think it will be so easy for them to bring their children to us at the adult center.
Going there would be detrimental, Moneda says. Children are very impressionable. Seeing chronic adult patients and some of their behaviors will be devastating. It is really going backward to the days before the state built the childrens centers so they would not have to be exposed to the adult patients.
Many of these children have a history of being abused, says PEF Executive Board Member Debbie Lee, a social worker at the childrens center. And some of them have adult family members with mental illness. So, when they see an adult with mental illness, the child may have flashbacks of traumatic experiences.
Ellen Murphy, a PEF member and volunteer coordinator at the childrens center, wondered how the governor could propose the move.
After Gov. Pataki took office, he said we shouldnt treat the younger children at the same facility with the older ones, Murphy says.
We had always treated children from age 5 to 18, but he had the younger ones transferred to a private psychiatric facility in Katonah. So, why does he want to move the children into a building with adult patients now? she asks.
Nurse Bridget Campbell is another PEF member who has worked at the childrens center for more than 20 years. She worries how the move will affect the program.
We put a lot of emphasis here on treatment and on stabilizing the children, Campbell says. Im concerned we would lose that focus and the quality of care would suffer once we become a part of the adult facility.
Ive worked in the other situation, says Dr. Louis Miller, a child psychiatrist. When I worked at Westchester Medical Center, we had two childrens psychiatric units. And the focus was all on the adults because they were 80 percent of the patients.
Pharmacist Gerald Spagnolo helped establish the pharmacy at the childrens center and is completely familiar with the special care needed in dispensing powerful psychiatric drugs to children.
It would take time for pharmacists who always deal with adult patients to adjust to the different needs of children, he says.
Its always better to have this facility separate, Spagnolo says. If they consolidate this pharmacy with the one at the adult center, it wont be as efficient and accessible as it is now.
Miller agrees that children need staff and an environment that are sensitive to their special developmental needs.
Here, we seize on every opportunity to build on a childs development and confidence, Miller says. But in an adult facility, they are not sensitized to the developmental level of kids.
And our focus on working with families is 10 times as great here, as it is in adult centers, he says.
Sometimes, when we have to send our kids up to the adult hospital for medical tests, they come back traumatized by it, Miller says.
This is a safer place for them, Murphy says. And theres more hope here, Campbell adds.
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FOCUSING ON KIDS Dr. Louis Miller and nurse Bridget Campbell review a patients records.
EASING PARENTS CONCERNS PEF members Dr. Josefina Moneda, social worker Mary Baier and nurse Joan Berberian discuss new admissions.