WNYLaborToday.com Editor’s Note: Sheri Scavone, who worked for the New York State Department of Health, has twin daughters who both received treatment at the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center (WNYCPC). Scavone knows first-hand what the West Seneca-based facility offers its children patients and their families as the community’s fight continues to stop the New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH), led by its Commissioner Ann Sullivan, from merging the children’s facility into the Adult Buffalo Psychiatric Center (BPC), where adult sex offenders are housed – even after three consecutive years of a group of community activists, elected officials and Labor Unions (the Civil Service Employees Association and the Public Employees Federation) coming together to successfully achieve reprieves from Albany to keep the children’s facility open in West Seneca. Scavone is one of many who have and continue to speak out on what a bad idea this truly is. She recently took time to participate in a Q&A with WNYLaborToday.com in order to expand on her feelings, discuss what the WNYCPC has done for her daughters and why Governor Andrew Cuomo must step in and make a crucial and positive decision to keep the center in West Seneca. For more on this story, read Your On-Line Labor Newspaper’s November 22nd report, headlined: PEF President “Has His Suspicions” On Why The NYSOMH Is ‘Once Again’ Attempting To Move Forward With A Merger Of The WNY Children’s Psychiatric Center Into The Adult Buffalo Psych Center. (Photos that accompany this WNYLaborToday.com Q&A are courtesy of Sheri Scavone, as well as a number of WNYLaborToday.com file photos)
Q.: What has the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center (WNYCPC) in West Seneca meant to you and your family? A.: Mental health challenges in a child is scary - for the entire family. When we were first referred to the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center (WNYCPC), I reluctantly visited. What I found was different from the institutional mental health experiences to that point - it was like a boarding school - safe, calm, and most of all - HOPEFUL. Hopeful in its nurturing, natural setting. Hopeful in the hands left by each graduating child (pictured below). Hopeful in the calm and competent staff approach - inclusive of the family. Each child fought the admission - for about a week - until they knew it was safe. Then their demeanor changed markedly.
Q.: Specifically, tell me about your problems and what WNYCPC did for you all. A.: My children, as so many children today, were victims of adverse childhood experiences (ACES). In their case, severe neglect and deprivation in a foreign orphanage for their most formative years. The science now tells us that these ACES (trauma, neglect, crime, poverty, divorce, physical violence and abuse) cause neurophysiological development delay in brain formation - delay that can be grown. For my smart, loving, athletically gifted, bright children (pictured below with their mother), early trauma, adolescence and some additional newer trauma collided, resulting in complete emotional dysfunction. The research says the first thing these children must have (in order) to begin to heal, is to feel safe. If they don’t feel safe, they cannot turn off their fight or flight system enough to heal. If they do not have hope, they cannot be motivated to do the very difficult and emotionally challenging work required to change and to heal. My children felt safe at WNYCPC and parents could function at work and at home as we felt our child was safe. We all always felt that after WNYCPC’s short-term, intensive treatment, they would be okay. Please note that the Buffalo Psychiatric Center acknowledges they are a long-term facility for the most persistently chronically ill. There was a belief at WNYCPC that the children would be okay. WNYCPC provided safety and nurturing - both inside the building and outside. Restrictiveness of environment was not even obvious, there was a sense of normalcy for the children - including games, parties, etc., learning of life-long coping techniques, medical management, continuance of an education in a school-like setting, training and support for parents and a palpable caring staff culture.
Q.: Looking back at what was done and accomplished regarding your family, where do you believe you and your family would be without the WNYCPC? A.: My one child had two admissions. Twins have a unique ability to pull each other up or in our case, down. The other child, one admission. Each admission was about three months. I truly believe my children would have finally succeeded in taking their own lives. Self-harm was less painful than the pain they were feeling inside – if it were not for WNYCPC. Every day is a challenge, but the most effective treatment that provided critical stabilization and a new, strong foundation for further brain development, was the short-term intervention of WNYCPC.
Q.: What was your initial reaction when you learned New York State wanted to close WNYCPC in West Seneca and merge it into the Adult Buffalo Psychiatric Center? A.: It makes no sense - to science, to the economy or to our children. New York State has a lot of broken things - I worked for New York State Department of Health. WNYCPC is not one of them. The data, the children and the families have proven that. This suggestion is fundamentally flawed. The approach for children needing intensive in-patient mental health treatment is short term and requires safety and loosely restrictive play and movement. It also requires staff with expertise and experience exclusively with children. Children are not little adults. These children can be treated, if qualified adults - and that includes the woman who serves the meals with an encouraging smile, work with these children, allowing their brain to develop where it hadn’t previously. For adults requiring in-patient mental health treatment, it is a long-term approach that is aimed at maintaining - not treating. Brain development is thought to occur until age twenty-one. As my children and many others have said, how much HOPE does it give me to look out the window of (the) Strozzi (Building on the grounds of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center) and see an adult with mental illness? I will not believe that I can ever get better – and therefore I won’t.
Q.: Tell me why this is such a bad idea? A.: The science has proven what the root issue is for children with emotional disturbances. It’s also shown that this neurophysiological developmental brain delay most often leads to behavioral and educational issues as the child gets older if appropriate and timely interventions are not used. We can effectively and efficiently make use of taxpayer dollars to treat these children on a short term, intensive basis in a safe and nurturing environment. They can’t heal if they can’t feel safe and indeed our community, can pay later - in terms of special education, the juvenile justice system, which by the way is separating younger offenders and adults! - and chronic mental health treatments, let alone the cost of lost wages of parents who are forced to give up jobs to care for these untreated children. Governor Andrew Cuomo and our State is charged with upholding justice, while adhering to evidence based science and to making the best use of taxpayer dollars. There is no way the outcomes for our children will be as good if this center is moved to within ear and eye-shot of chronically ill adults. The staff knows it - at both facilities, the doctors know it, the kids have testified to it and no one at a state level has come up with anything to counter the science - because they can’t.
Q.: If you could personally talk to Governor Andrew Cuomo and Office of Mental Health Commissioner Ann Sullivan, what would you tell them? A.: The same thing that I testified during a September Office of Mental Health hearing: What science do you have that counters the science we have - and the science that moved the kids away from the adults so many years ago? You will undo something that will have catastrophic effect on our children, our families, our economy, our communities and our taxpayers. Don’t play God. God gave us WNYCPC in West Seneca and it has worked for thousands of children who are now contributing members of our society.
Q.: What is your reaction/feelings as to what both the Public Employees Federation (PEF) and the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) have done over the course of time to continue to bring about three consecutive one-year reprieves to keep the WNYCPC in West Seneca? A.: While most admirable, WNYCPC has paid a price in Staff turnover as a result of the uncertainty of the reprieves. The possible closure also lurks over the children and their families. If my child suffers a setback, I know I can depend upon WNYCPC in West Seneca. Honestly, should this move happen, I would no longer feel WNYCPC was a solid option.
Q.: If it was your call, what would you do with the WNYCPC? For example, would you keep it in West Seneca, expand and improve it in West Seneca, merge it with another facility, build a new, stand-alone facility or have New York State invest more into the facility and others like it? A.: The current facility is perfectly placed – central to the nineteen counties it serves, accessing services and parents who need to visit and partake in the program. Accessible to bus. Accessible to nearby amenities for community outings with children, spacious both inside and out. WNYCPC is a safe environment for visiting parents. We know that parents, especially from rural counties, are afraid and would be dissuaded from visiting in the City of Buffalo. That is a very real reality. The Buffalo Psychiatric Center is a scary looking place and adult patients freely roaming the grounds adds to the already crime-ridden locale. Having designed a number of health care facilities, I remarked immediately at the brilliance of the design of WNYCPC - where ample windows provided constant exposure to the sun and woodlands - and the beautiful outside world where safety was always paramount, but never overwhelming or gave you a restrictive feeling. Where huge courtyards allowed for hours of softball, picnics and moon-watching. Where a fully contiguous building allowed for free movement to and when necessary emergency return and from school, the gym, pool, family canteen, meals, recreational activities, karaoke or a concert in the full auditorium - just like a normal child would have in the community. In my OMH hearing testimony on what the BPC would mean – including more Staff, as three Staff Members would have to go with each group of kids outside to the gym in case a child needed to be returned to a unit. Also note that the new proposed outdoor recreation area at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center is (presently) the only close parking lot, presumably for Staff and visitors. Also refer to the testimony regarding the importance of environment for healing.
Q.: Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t asked you about your family’s experience with WNYCPC? A.: As we get caught up in ego, in politics, in trying to save one facility at the cost of our children - let us take a moment to put that all aside and reconnect with our roots. Our Native Americans - who were a strong founding presence in Western New York - believe that until a child’s energy is strong and firmly grounded, it should be protected from extraneous influences. When our children enter WNYCPC, they are weak. What would they see at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center? Deer and wildlife come up to the children’s windows in West Seneca. They abound on the grounds. As I would leave late each night, feeling very safe in the parking lot, I talked to the deer. I asked them to protect my child. You see, Native belief says that when we learn to speak with the animals, we experience the power of human essence. Deer are thought to symbolize maternal nurturing and family. They were there with my daughters when I could not be. It may seem trivial, but let me tell you from a parent who’s lived through mental health system hell, those deer held my family together - day after day. Their behavior, viewed by the children, is predictable. The acres of green lands in which they roam in West Seneca is healing for these children who want to succeed. The setting is more than important.