October 1st, 2010

Special education and residential schools gradually disappearing

As states across the country continue to seek ways to reduce costs, services and programs relating to mental health issues often suffer the greatest cuts. In New England, the fiscal picture is no brighter. While many services have shifted to community-based programs, there still remains a need in some cases for residential treatment. However, in the last year, a few more facilities have closed their doors.

Peter Mendelson, director of Behavioral Health and Medicine at the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, confirms that High Meadows in Hamden has ceased operations. This residential treatment center, the state’s smallest, had been the only state-operated facility with round-the-clock nursing and medical care coverage for boys with serious emotional and behavioral problems.

According to Kathryn E. Saylor, Psy.D., executive director of the New Hampshire Psychological Association (NHPA), the Anna Philbrook Center in Concord closed its doors on June 30 due, not only to declining admissions, but also to the building’s deteriorating physical condition. The children who did reside at Philbrook were transferred to New Hampshire State Hospital, where an adult unit was converted to serve the younger population.

The state of Maine currently has very few residential facilities, according to Sheila Comerford, executive director of the Maine Psychological Association (MPA), and she is unaware of any closures.

In Massachusetts, Brightside for Families and Children in West Springfield, closed its residential services and school program on April 2, 2010. According to Rosanna Czermak, former business program instructor for computer science at the school and currently the executive director of the Vermont Psychological Association (VPA), some staff members have relocated to the Brattleboro Retreat. She notes that Rob Simpson, who had overseen operations at Brightside, is now CEO for the Retreat and Jim Bastion, previously the director at Brightside, has joined Simpson at the Vermont facility.

Mary Orr, communications and media specialist for Sisters of Providence Health System of which Brightside for Families and Children is one element, notes that census levels over the past several years precipitated the closure of the residential and school programs. She points out that Brightside’s Family Stabilization Team (FST) will continue to provide outpatient services; Providence Behavioral Health Hospital’s Child and Adolescent inpatient (CHAD) and Acute Residential Treatment (ART) programs will be integrated into the FST program. Intensive, solution-oriented and designed to meet individual family needs, the FST program will offer in-home support and follow-up care for children who have undergone inpatient psychiatric treatment or who are at-risk for placement outside the home. Additionally, a strategic planning process that includes community needs assessments will determine the most effective response to children and families, Orr adds.

At the end of the academic year in June, the G. Stanley Hall School, which is operated by the non-profit agency, The Bridge of Central Massachusetts, closed its special education program for high school students, according to Tina Wingate of the marketing department. However, the Worcester-based school continues to provide special education services and programs for children seven to 10 years old, she says. Executive Director Barry Walsh, Ph.D., indicates that budgetary and census issues forced the closure. Students, who numbered in the high teens, were placed in other special education programs or in public schools, according to Walsh.

According to James V. Major, CAE, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Schools, the Commonwealth has cut funding for state aid for special education by 42 percent, or $97 million, from the FY09 level. “This compares to a cut of only 2.5 percent in state aid for regular education. School districts have used federal stimulus funds to fill the gap, but the federal money will not be available for next fiscal year,” he says. “It will be extremely difficult for school districts to find the money they need to fund services for children with disabilities.”

By Phyllis Hanlon

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