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Health groups seek to block treatment center at Hickey; Coalitions say facility is unnecessary for state, inappropriate for site


Two statewide coalitions of mental health advocates have asked Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to block a residential treatment center for seriously emotionally disturbed youths at Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County.

In a two-page letter to Townsend, Maryland's Juvenile Justice Coalition said the proposed 24-bed facility at Hickey in Cub Hill is unnecessary because Maryland has enough residential treatment centers.

Building another center, the coalition said, will siphon money from other less-intensive treatment options that are needed -- a position shared by the Coalition for a Full Continuum of Care. In addition, the coalition said, a detention facility such as Hickey is an inappropriate location for a treatment center.

"I can't think of a worse possible place for it than the Hickey School," said James P. McComb, chairman of Maryland's Juvenile Justice Coalition. "If you put anything on the Hickey campus, it'll be there for the next 100 years."

The opposition, articulated in the letter sent late Monday to Townsend, has significantly altered the dispute over the plan to put two residential treatment centers at Hickey.

One would treat severely emotionally disturbed offenders while the other would deal with sex offenders.

Initial disquiet about the plan surfaced last fall among Cub Hill residents who were concerned about having dangerous youths in their neighborhood.

Opposition coalescing among mental health professionals statewide has shifted the discussion into a wide-ranging, passionate argument over how best to treat the state's toughest cases: seriously emotionally disturbed juvenile offenders.

"To just say, we're going to put it at Hickey is the totally wrong answer," said Susan P. Leviton, a University of Maryland law professor who founded the nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth. She said Hickey was not equipped to handle such offenders.

Townsend vigorously defended the state's choice of sites yesterday.

"We are putting kids in Hickey because that's where they need to be," she said. "These are seriously emotionally disturbed juvenile offenders. They need to be in a secure facility. It is in the best interests of the children and public safety."

Townsend and Walter G. R. Wirsching, assistant secretary for program services at the Department of Juvenile Justice, which oversees Hickey, said the state has great difficulty in finding residential centers for the most dangerous juveniles.

A year ago, Wirsching said, he asked the 14 private residential treatment centers in Maryland to make beds available for seriously emotionally disturbed offenders. Two centers offered to take female juvenile offenders -- but most such offenders are boys, and he has not been able to find accommodations for them, he said.

The facilities must be secure for public safety reasons, he said, and the department doesn't want the patients shuffled around unnecessarily. "You take the kid, you treat the kid -- no other baloney about 'we can't handle another aggressive child,' " he said.

Advocates said they are afraid that the state will end up overusing the residential treatment centers for children who might not need them.

"One of the most important things is that we not misuse it, that we don't put kids in there when they don't need it," McComb said. "We need to fill in the holes in the system of care."

Those holes, he said, include "step-down" programs to help juvenile offenders move from intensive treatment back into their homes and families.

"Put more money into cultivating a range of options," said Mark Greenberg, who heads the Coalition For a Full Continuum of Care. Greenberg is also an administrator for 11 treatment programs, including one residential treatment center that, he said, has not added beds for 25 years.

"Some children really benefit from residential treatment," he said. "We have enough of that option -- what we need is to provide more options."

Pub Date: 1/27/99

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