Weekly Feature

2018-04-05 / Front Page


Children’s center to remain open
Editor, Reporter

Late Tuesday afternoon, following yet another local press conference on legal action against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the governor’s office announced that he changed his mind and will not pursue closing the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center.

(See editorial on page four)

The decision was years in the making and should have come sooner, according to center advocates.

“I am beyond grateful to hear the news today that the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center will stay open in West Seneca. This is a major victory for our community, who has fought tirelessly for more than five years to make this a reality,” said Michael Kearns, the former assemblyman who represented West Seneca and led the fight for the center.

Kearns, now clerk of Erie County, along with Sen. Patrick Gallivan, former patients, staff and families, long have cited the center’s calming, natural and isolated grounds as being a catalyst for healing the state’s most vulnerable children.

“The WNYCPC rates among the top facilities in the country in treating children undergoing significant mental trauma in a safe, tranquil environment that gives them hope. Our children deserve no less, and I am grateful these services will continue well into the future,” Gallivan said.

Kearns offered thanks to everyone who supported the effort — from local and state officials, to advocates who circulated petitions, wrote to the governor and never lost hope, the more than 17,000 Western New Yorkers who signed the petition to keep the center open, and the parents and families who have seen the benefits of the facility.

“Finally and most importantly, to the patients, both current and former, of the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center who were brave enough to share their stories with us about why this facility needed to stay open, this win is for all of you,” Kearns said.

In June 2015, former patients and supporters of the children’s center offered two days of gripping emotional testimony in Buffalo City Hall before Commissioner of Mental Health Ann Marie Sullivan.

Natalia Quevado offered testimony that day, and spoke of her trouble with anxiety and depression. She was hospitalized for the first time in September 2013 at BryLin, a mental health treatment facility in Buffalo.

Quevado also spoke of the activities she was able to experience outdoors and the freedom she had to move around and be active while at the children’s center.

“I’m a kid, not an adult, and I deserve treatment away from adults, not near them,” Quevado said.

“Unless you have lived it you cannot understand it,” said Allison Scanlon, whose son, Vernon, was hospitalized at the children’s center. “Infrastructure mattered in his treatment and in the healing of our families.”

Nearly every advocate for the children’s center mentioned one icon of the healing that takes place within its walls — handprints.

“It gave me a sense of hope — something I hadn’t felt in a very, very long time,” said Marissa Divincenzo, a self-advocate and former patient of the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center, during testimony. “My concern is not just for me but for all the kids. My handprint is on the wall. That handprint symbolizes the hard work and the journey and the struggles that I overcame when I walked out of there.”

The children’s center is currently located in West Seneca. The state had proposed a plan to merge the facility with the Buffalo Psychiatric Center in 2019.

Much of the talk from the state of closing the children’s facility concerned reducing the number of beds available for children, alarming advocates. Now, the governor’s office claims the opportunity to serve an additional 500 children and families as part of the merger will remain intact.

Already, more than $5 million has been spent to renovate four floors at the adult-only Buffalo facility, with the governor previously claiming climbing costs were driving the close of the children’s center.

Representatives from the governor’s office said an official plan for the new area of the facility will be made public in the near future.

Last year, the Assembly and Senate unanimously passed legislation to prevent the move, which Cuomo promptly vetoed in November.

“I am proud to finally say that the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center will continue to serve children from Erie County and across the state at its top rated facility in West Seneca,” Kearns said Tuesday night.

At the press conference Tuesday morning, the Save Our Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center Coalition and their lawyer, Amherst-based attorney Steven Cohen, announced that they wanted state Comptroller Thomas Di- Napoli to investigate Cuomo and his motives for pushing to close the children’s center and integrate it within the Buffalo Psychiatric Center.

In a letter sent to DiNapoli on Monday, Cohen argued that Cuomo’s veto of a bipartisan bill that opposed closing the center violates three sections of the state’s Mental Hygiene Law, which state that facilities such as the children’s center “may not, as a matter of law, be discontinued” without legislative approval.

He also noted that the governor has pushed to have multi-million dollar contracts to renovate the Buffalo center approved without legislative consent, has pressured legislators to support closing the children’s center, and has not offered any hard evidence as to why moving the center, regularly rated as one of the best facilities of its kind in the state, would save the state money.

Coupled with the felony convictions of Cuomo’s associate Joseph Percoco for bribing contractors, the conviction of Syracuse-based developer Steven Aiello, and the testimony of Cuomo’s longtime friend Todd Howe and others concerning bribery allegations, Cohen said the governor’s true motives were becoming clear.

“We see that there is a tremendous amount of contractor bribery going on with this governor’s administration, and the [WNYCPC land] is not only perfect for its current use, but it’s a developer’s dream,” he said. “So it causes us to question; perhaps the governor’s intentions aren’t honorable, and are in line with the kind of deals that Todd Howe testified are routinely done by this governor.”

Cohen said he chose to ask DiNapoli to investigate because state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman had made the “mind-boggling” decision to represent the governor, and because the comptroller is the highest-ranking officer in the state who has not been tied to any corruption.

“He has the ability to investigate, to do an audit, to take a look to find out what the governor’s motives may be, and it’s our hope that with a light being shined on this by the comptroller, the governor’s true motives will be revealed,” he said.

Along with Cohen, Coalition co-chair David Chudy argued that the governor’s administration has been unable to get any independent mental health expert to say that the center’s children would benefit from moving to the Strozzi building at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center.

“That governor, that mental health commissioner, have not provided any family, youth, mental health professional that is not paid by the office of mental health to step forward in five years to say this is good for those kids,” Chudy said. “There’s no good answer.”

“We know how it’s good for the contractors, we know about the $12 million in renovations,” Cohen said. “We know how it could be good for developers, for land that is worth millions of dollars, but they have not shown us how it’s good for these children.”

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