BUFFALO, N.Y. - After an exhausting series of budget negotiations, state lawmakers in Albany finally reached a consensus this weekend on a few high-priority items.
They finalized a measure to expand ride-sharing outside of New York City, agreed to raise the age of criminal responsibility and struck a deal for eligible families to receive free college tuition. The $153 billion budget was more than a week late, but it appears legislators from across the state returned to their home districts this week with reason to celebrate.
There was one specific piece of Western New York legislation, however, that died in the final moments of the budget negotiations.
That legislation, sponsored in the Assembly by Michael Kearns (D-West Seneca), attempted to prevent the Western New York Children's Psychiatric Center from relocating to the adult Buffalo Psychiatric Center campus. Under the state's plan, the current children's facility in West Seneca would close, and by as early as 2019, inpatient care would be handled in a separate wing on the Buffalo campus near Forest and Elmwood.
The state's Office of Mental Health touts the move as a way to free up millions of dollars a year for mental health services, while also preserving inpatient care for vulnerable young patients.
But Kearns and Senate sponsor Patrick Gallivan (R-Elma) have argued the relocation from West Seneca to Buffalo could have disastrous effects on mental health care.
"I support the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, but it's just not the right place for children," Kearns said. "Remember, these are children as young as four years old who have suffered trauma, and you're taking them to a new place that's institutional. And it's not conducive to healing for young people."
According to the Office of Mental Health, current patients would not be affected. The vast majority of them remain in the West Seneca facility on only a short-term basis, and they would be finished with inpatient care by the time the new wing opens on the Buffalo campus. The state is currently soliciting bids for the construction project.
But Kearns is scrambling to prevent that from happening, even hinting he could take legal action to prevent the state from completing the relocation. Citing safety concerns -- and pointing to an incident last month involving an attack by a patient -- Kearns said it's inappropriate to place children in such close quarters with adult patients.
Kearns, whose brother has a mental disability and spent time on an adjacent West Seneca campus as a child, said he'll release more details Tuesday regarding safety concerns at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center.
Kearns also said his internal survey of constituents reveals nearly unanimous support for keeping the Western New York Children's Psychiatric Center in West Seneca.
"It's a sad situation," Kearns said. "We have a governor, and we have a (mental health) commissioner that doesn't listen to the people."
The Office of Mental Health, however, created a "Frequently Asked Questions" on its website to directly respond to state lawmakers and community members fighting relocation. According to the state, there would be "absolutely no mixing of children and adults." Six other Office of Mental Health campus sites include designated areas for both children and adults, including a facility in Elmira.
"All inpatient treatment, education and recreation space –both indoor and outdoor-- will be specially designed for youth and completely separate from the adult services on the Buffalo campus," according to the state.
The Office of Mental Health also claims placing the children's facility in Buffalo would give families easier access to their children, since a large portion of the patients live in the city of Buffalo.
But David Chudy, the coordinator of a community-based effort named "Save Our Western New York Children's Psychiatric Center," said the state's explanation for relocation does not satisfy him. Three generations of Chudy's family spent time at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, but he believes placing children so close to adult patients could have extremely damaging effects.
"You put these kids in a building surrounded by long-term psychiatric patients-- how can they help but look and think, 'where is the hope in that? That's gonna be me in 20 or 30 years,'" he said. "It's a wonderful facility for adults, but kids don't belong there. We don't know why they're not getting this."
Gov. Cuomo's office did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
Kearns, meanwhile, said it's possible he could reintroduce legislation at some point this spring.
"We have to fight as soon as possible," Kearns said, "before a shovel gets in the ground."