Buried in Cuomo's 2022 budget plan: Big shift at Rockland Children's Psychiatric Center

Big changes are planned at the state-run Rockland Children's Psychiatric Center. But what exactly will happen there? The answer depends on whom you ask.

Nancy Cutler
Rockland/Westchester Journal News
  • State lawmakers throughout the region demand RCPC remain.
  • State Office of Mental Health officials say their proposal is being mischaracterized.
  • RCPC is the only inpatient psychiatric facility for children between the Bronx and Albany.
  • A recent study showed children's mental health-related hospital ER visits increased by 31% for children 12 to 17 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

ORANGETOWN – New York’s 2022 budget book describes an “innovative” change for Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center into a “voluntary-operated center for children and youth.”

State officials say the shift of services at RCPC would enhance care for children and their families. But a bipartisan group of lawmakers say it’s just a fancy way of describing the shuttering of the only such facility in the region.

And the timing, they say, couldn’t be worse. 

“Children across the state have been dealing with the effects of COVID-19 for a year, and the administration’s response is to make mental health services more difficult to obtain,” said Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, a registered nurse.

The Democrat chairs the Assembly Committee on Mental Health and represents the 100th District, which includes most of Sullivan County and a portion of Orange County. “It makes no sense," she said.

Rockland Children's Psychiatric Center in Orangeburg.  Wednesday, February 24, 2021.

State Sen. Elijah Reichlin-Melnick’s Rockland-based 38th District includes Orangetown, where RCPC is located. He said OMH portrays a budget-cutting plan as philosophical strategy on mental health delivery.

“Their principal reason for doing this is to save money,” Reichlin-Melnick said of the state. “I understand the budget is tight. This isn’t the place to cut.”

State Office of Mental Health officials say the change doesn't come with any financial figures – the focus is on delivery of services, not fiscal savings.

A study cited by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that during the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health-related hospital emergency department visits increased by 24% among children ages 5 to 11, and 31% for children ages 12 to 17, compared to the same time period the previous year.

"As a result of this pandemic, I'm concerned about the long-term ramifications and the mental health of our children,” said Assemblyman Michael Lawler, a Republican who served as deputy supervisor of Orangetown. “The proposed closure of Rockland Children's Psychiatric Center is wholly unacceptable and will have a devastating impact on the families and children suffering from mental illness. This facility has served thousands of families over the years throughout the Hudson Valley.”

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Provider, program changes

The hospital is the only such state-run inpatient facility between the Bronx and Albany to Utica.

OMH spokesman James Plastiras said the budget proposal is being mischaracterized.

"It will bring much-needed community-based and home-based mental health care for more than 500 children and families," Plastiras said of the OMH plan. "It is good for the community and good for the young people and families we serve.”

The new structure would include crisis residential capacity and family support, OMH officials have said.

Rockland Children's Psychiatric Center in Orangeburg.  Wednesday, February 24, 2021.

“OMH wants as many people served in outpatient capacity. Who could argue with that?” Reichlin-Melnick said. But for the few who do need inpatient care, keeping services available is key. The loss of such care, he said, is “a statement of what our state and our community’s values are.” 

The state did not provide any details about whether a private company, nonprofit or some other entity would operate the "comprehensive crisis services hub" – the first such model for children in the state.

Advocates and state lawmakers, though, say OMH is taking about 200 inpatient beds for children out of the system entirely.

It’s not for lack of demand, advocates say.

The beginning of the pandemic brought a dip in RCPC admissions — people all over stopped seeking non-COVID-related medical care, experts have said. But by November, RCPC was 100% full.

New and underutilized

The children’s psychiatric center was originally built on the sprawling state campus in Orangetown in 1970 – though children had been treated at Rockland Psychiatric Center since the facility's inception in 1930.

Rockland Psychiatric Center and the children's hospital have long been major employers in the county. Jobs at the center offered many Rockland residents of all backgrounds a foothold into the middle class.

State Sen. James Skoufis said the fallout from state budget-cutting shouldn't be curbing access to important services and killing valuable jobs. "The governor's proposal to close this location is an absolute lose-lose," said the Democrat whose 39th District includes northern Rockland and parts of Orange and Ulster counties.

New York state Sen. James Skoufis.

“Even before the pandemic, mental health care resources for children in our community were in need of expansion. That need has only grown over the past year," said Civil Service Employees Association Southern Region President Anthony Adamo. "The state has a responsibility to care for our most vulnerable New Yorkers; closing RCPC and reducing beds would be abandoning them.” 

A new 56-bed facility was built on the site in the late 2000s.

Once considered one of the leading children's psychiatric centers in the country, the hospital over the years saw the state sell off large parts of the Rockland Psychiatric Center property to Orangetown, which has used a portion of the site for sports fields.

RCPC's original abandoned buildings served as a stage for Netflix's "Orange is the New Black.”

The state continues to operate facilities on a downsized portion of the site, including the children’s hospital, psychiatric hospital, and Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, a nationally respected research center focused on mental health. There are also community-supported residences operated by a nonprofit.

The state has lowered bed capacity over the years as a cost-cutting tool, Reichlin-Melnick said, even as demand remains.

"Just as a principal seems very poor planning to build a hospital in last 10 or so years and then close and sublease," Reichlin-Melnick said.

State Sen. Elijah Reichlin-Melnick

With the building underutilized, Reichlin-Melnick said, the state could sublease a portion for the privately-run care hub. “Why not do both?” Reichlin-Melnick said. “That would be the best of both worlds.”

Assemblyman Colin Schmitt, a Republican whose 99th District includes Stony Point in Rockland and a large swath of Orange County, said, “It makes no sense to scale back this or any other mental health services in the midst of a global pandemic and economic collapse.”

Nancy Cutler writes about People & Policy. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyrockland