Baltimore RICA facility doesn't quite measure up Facility for mentally ill youngsters in dire need of repairs. Another extension sought.

March 20, 1991|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

The two-story red brick building tucked away on the rolling, wooded acreage in southwest Baltimore looks like the perfect place for young men to study for the priesthood. Serene, austere, no frills.

But this is no longer St. Peter's Seminary. For almost 20 years, the 34-acre tract has been the home of the Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents (RICA), a state facility for mentally ill young people.

It is a serviceable, if somewhat institutional and gloomy building of bare linoleum floors, dark corridors and drafts.

While it meets the minimum standards of safety, RICA-Baltimore contrasts starkly with its Rockville counterpart, a cluster of modern, red-brick cottages considered an architectural model for such facilities.

At RICA-Rockville, youths live in dormitories that rival those of private colleges, eat in a light-filled cafeteria and enjoy amenities such as an indoor swimming pool, weight room, pool table and state-of-the-art print shop.

At RICA-Baltimore, the students are lucky if their food is still hot when it arrives from the kitchen at nearby Spring Grove. Wood shop is housed in the old chapel. Classes are held in a narrow, dark building on Spring Grove's grounds. The gym, a recent addition, almost rivals Rockville's, but the Baltimore RICA does not have the extensive playing fields or extras of Rockville.

How has this disparity gone unnoticed? It hasn't. In 1984, a bill introduced by Del. Howard Rawlings, D-City, and enacted by the General Assembly, gave the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene five years to make the Baltimore institute comparable to the one in Rockville and another in Cheltenham.

In 1989, the health department requested an extension to 1991 to bring the Baltimore institute up to par.

Tomorrow, health department officials are expected to go before the House Appropriations Committee and request a second extension -- until 1997.

The department's position, as explained by spokesman Michael Golden, is that it needs an extension so it won't be in violation of the law. RICA-Baltimore has not been improved, Golden said, because for years there was some question as to whether it would remain under the health department, or be moved to the Department of Juvenile Services. There was even talk of shutting the facility down, he added.

The history of funding for the planned renovation is a bit murky. While the health department did provide about $500,000 in the 1980s to correct some programming disparities, the annual requests that RICA-Baltimore submitted to the health department for capital funds never made it on the governor's budget -- until this year.

"It would not really be prudent to make a major expenditure on a project that may not remain under your department," Golden said. "In the state government, each department has a separate budget."

Rawlings, who sits on that committee, says he is appalled by the department's rationale for requesting another extension. "There is always a bureaucratic excuse for not doing anything. If you don't want to do something, you keep it in limbo and watch it wither on a vine."

Bringing the Baltimore institute up to par, staff members said, would involve building a school on the grounds, then a new dormitory. It would cost millions.

This year, for the first time, those millions are in sight. Gov. William Donald Schaefer's capital budget includes $10 million for extensive renovations at the Baltimore site.

"We've never been this close before," said chief executive officer Clifford A. Palmer. "But we still can't count on it."

Susan P. Levitan, president of Advocates for Children and Youth Inc., helped to make an issue this session of RICA-Baltimore, which houses youths from the Baltimore metropolitan area and the Eastern Shore.

"The kids that are out there, that are from this area, are so $H needy," she said. "Once again, it's the kids who have nothing who get nothing. I'm not talking about frills -- let them keep the indoor swimming pool. I'm talking about the basics."

RICA-Baltimore, where youths typically stay for up to two years, is the original program in what is now a three-campus system for emotionally disturbed young people. It is, according to Palmer, "a step down" from more restrictive placements in psychiatric hospitals.

While the youths assigned to the regional institutes may have juvenile records or learning disabilities, it is their mental illness that brings them to the state facilities. At each campus, the population is split between residents and day students, all of whom receive intensive individual and family therapy.

RICA-Baltimore, started in the late 1950s, was the first. Originally housed on the grounds of the Rosewood state hospital in Baltimore County, it moved to its current site near the U.S. National Cemetery in southwest Baltimore in the early 1970s. In terms of programming, the other RICAS have copied the Baltimore program, although the Rockville site has a more academically oriented program.

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