129 patients fled Springfield in '92 Figures given to watchdog group


Patients escaped or walked away from Springfield Hospital Center at the rate of more than 10 per month last year, according to state figures released by the center's superintendent to the South Carroll Coalition.

The figures show that 129 patients left the hospital grounds without authorization in 1992. The total includes 24 escapees who were court-committed, 39 patients who had been committed by physicians and 66 people who had voluntarily committed themselves.

Dr. Bruce Hershfield, Springfield's superintendent, released the information on past walk-offs and escapes to the coalition after the group filed a Maryland Public Information Act request for it.

In 1991, 269 patients -- an average of more than 20 per month -- left the center without authorization, the figures show. That total included 40 court-committed patients, 83 who were committed by physicians and 146 voluntary patients.

Dr. Hershfield said his administration "was more than pleased" with the decrease last year.

"Elopements [escapes] clearly impose a danger to the 800 homes in surrounding communities," said Kathleen Horneman, a coalition founder. "We want more information about elopements, and we want to be included in communications from Springfield when there is an escape."

Coalition members contend that patients will continue to escape from the state-run, low-security facility for the mentally ill. They want to know about those escapes as soon as they happen.

They have asked Dr. Hershfield to provide timely information on all potentially dangerous escapees.

"A patient is considered to be an elopee if he or she is on unauthorized absence from an assigned ward or treatment area and, after a thorough search, is off hospital grounds," Dr. Hershfield said in a letter to the coalition.

Ms. Horneman said the decline in the number of escapes may reflect a corresponding decrease in the number of patients housed at the center.

The 1991 census lists 523 inpatients. As of February 1993, the total inpatient census was 399.

Coalition members do not want to appear antagonistic to Springfield, Ms. Horneman said, but they believe escapes will remain a problem at the low-security facility.

"We are tax-paying citizens with a right to security in our neighborhoods," she said. "We want to work with Springfield and create a better environment of communication."

Ms. Horneman helped form the coalition several months ago. The group opposes state proposals to house violent patients and juvenile delinquents at the Sykesville center. They point to the escape rate as one major reason for their opposition.

"Springfield's setting makes escaping easy," she said. "The center is surrounded by fields and woodlands, and any escapees eventually empty into our communities.

"These people's judgments are altered by mental illness. They could become dangerous to themselves or to our communities."

Last October, a patient who left Springfield broke into a home in Carrolltowne, ransacked the house, stole a change of clothing and forced a young resident to drive him to Carrolltowne Mall, said Ms. Horneman.

The center called state police to help find the patient, but no one told area residents that the man was at large.

"It was ludicrous that we couldn't find out what was happening, especially when police dogs and helicopters were in our neighborhood," she said.

It took the coalition three months to confirm that the patient had been captured and sent to another institution, she said.

"We have a right to know," said Ms. Horneman. "Springfield has a responsibility to inform the public."

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