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As Springfield shrinks, so do hopes of residents


THE WALLS OF century-old Springfield Hospital Center are tumbling down -- literally and figuratively.

The state mental institution three years ago spun off 720 acres of the unused Martin Gross section to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services for use as a statewide police training facility.

The town of Sykesville annexed another 132 acres of surplus hospital land last fall, with plans to redevelop it for residential and commercial use. That Warfield complex includes 15 vacant, aging buildings that need millions of dollars in renovations. The town's plan goes to referendum next month.

Now Springfield expects to close another residential building, pushing 40 impaired people into community group homes and dropping the patient census to about 350 persons. Three decades ago, Springfield's patient population exceeded 2,400.

This downsizing of the scenic, tranquil campus of the state hospital was not unexpected. For years, the operation has been under the sword of potential closure.

State mental hospitals are in disfavor; community-based "least restrictive" residences are in fashion. Maryland has three such mental health hospitals and has been slowly deciding which to close and which to keep open.

Two scenarios

As the Springfield center divests itself of excess acreage -- and the state expense to maintain unused buildings -- that campus may become so small that it is an attractive candidate for closing.

Or it could also be argued that Springfield has taken the initiative to remake itself into a smaller, more focused facility that provides efficient treatment of qualified patients and better value for the state.

Whichever scenario prevails, the shrinkage at Springfield is continuing apace. And not all for the better, as Sun reporter Mary Gail Hare wrote recently. The planned closing of Freedom House residence on the campus is a poignant example.

The building is home to 40 mentally ill residents who nonetheless are able to travel into the community for jobs, shopping and classes. The residence is a welcome haven for them, all the more valued for its structure and stability than its medical/therapeutic services.

Care still needed

That's why Dr. Marcio V. Pinheiro believes the long-term residential care of Freedom House is needed and will be in the future. About one-third of the patients admitted to Springfield require such residential care, which affords these disadvantaged individuals a safe and stable environment, the psychiatrist estimates.

Some of these Freedom House residents may be capable of living in the community, and may desire to do so. Springfield Superintendent Paula Langmead believes that residents will succeed with the new skills they have learned in years at the hospital center.

But others are not equipped mentally to make the change. With an average age of about 54 years, these Freedom House residents are not new to the state mental health system. They've tried living in the community, in homes and shelters, perhaps wandering the streets without support and supervision. None of those alternatives has worked.

Chanting the mantra

The remote regulators in the state health department chant the mantra of "least restrictive environment" to justify such traumatic dislocations of the mentally ill. The pols in the legislature talk dispassionately about eliminating "beds" in the mental hygiene system, while fervidly debating how they should split up the huge budget surplus for their own benefit.

Despite the views of health care providers closest to the affected individuals, the bureaucracy is ready to ship these poor souls to yet undecided community domiciles throughout Maryland.

Doing so will not necessarily save much money, Springfield officials suggest. The lowest level of community care programs costs about the same as maintaining a person in Freedom House.

The current plan is to close Freedom House completely within six months: no sifting of needs to determine if any residents should stay in that particular residence, just a wholesale removal.

After all, the bureaucrats can explain, these are not hospital patients but simply residents of a house on the hospital grounds. Those residents do move in the community, and find modified employment.

Will support be there?

Of course, the administrators promise to find "appropriate" placements for the Freedom House persons, places where they can, in theory, fit in and find the level of support and security they have at Springfield. But don't count on it, given the histories of these disabled people and the shabby history of de-institutionalizing the mentally ill in our country.

Closing this one modest brick building will not shape the future of Springfield.

But it will significantly affect the futures of the men and women who have gratefully called it home for the past decade.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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