The closing of a psychiatric unit for troubled youths in Anne Arundel County has raised concern among area sheriffs, some of whom must now spend many more hours transporting youths to hospitals in Cumberland and in Sykesville.
Crownsville Hospital Center closed its low-security youth psychiatric unit in June to open Focus Point, a high-security residential treatment program for emotionally disturbed and violent teen-agers as well as runaways.
The change prompted a two-step move for youths in the program.
Those from Howard, Carroll and Montgomery counties who had been treated at Sykesville will now go to the Finan Center in Cumberland.
Juveniles from Anne Arundel, Baltimore City, Wicomico and 10 other southern Maryland counties will be sent for treatment to the Muncie Center in Sykesville.
Sheriffs' departments having to transport the youths a longer distance see financial and manpower problems ahead. The subject is among the issues being discussed this weekend at an annual meeting of the Maryland Sheriffs' Association, which has sent out a memo to all departments, asking them how this change will affect their budgets.
"Nobody challenges the state's need to become more effective," association spokesman Michael Canning said. "The big complaint is that no advance warning was given. There was no discussion of this ahead of time."
"We envision a pretty big impact on our budget because of it," said Howard County Sheriff Michael A. Chiuchiolo. "It really is going to be a hardship for our county."
He said that the trips to and from Cumberland will require as many as 12 hours, compared to the one-hour trip to take youths to Sykesville. He estimates the move will cost him $25,000 to $35,000 more per year in overtime pay and wear and tear on cars. The department transported an average of one juvenile to Sykesville each week between January and June.
"It just doesn't make common sense to move the three closest counties to Cumberland," said Sheriff Chiuchiolo. "This move was made without ever consulting us and consulting the users. They never looked at the increased cost factor."
The new arrangement means Carroll County won't be able to use the local facility for its own youths.
"We operate on a zero budget here," said Chief Deputy Charles Fowler of the Carroll County Sheriff Department. "We have to submit justification for our budgeting. Perhaps if we had known about this, we could have put it in."
His department transports about six to eight youths a year, and the new arrangement will cost about $2,000 more in manpower, said Chief Deputy Fowler.
The state health department says it's sorry for the inconvenience, but there's not much it can do. Budget problems forced the state to open Focus Point to cut the cost of sending youths out of state for care. More than 700 Maryland youths are at treatment facilities in Virginia and Pennsylvania and as far away as Maine and Texas, at an average cost of $75,000 per youth per year.
Dr. Regenia Hicks of the state Mental Hygiene Administration hopes to reduce that number by about 25.
"It was clearly not going to be anything that would make everybody happy," Dr. Hicks said.
"I can sympathize with cost to sheriffs," she said. "At the same time, my major concern is to provide treatment to children."
All juveniles were moved to make the distance and time it takes to get to the centers more equitable, she said.
She said the transfers were the best possible solution.
Although the youth transfers were meant to be temporary, the health department has not come up with a plan to resolve the problem.
Dr. Hicks is urging sheriffs' departments statewide to help lobby for more money to treat troubled youths and juvenile offenders.
"The bottom line is trying to look at whole service needs for the whole state and to come up with a solution that would be in the best interest of all kids in the state of Maryland," she said. "It's difficult to be in that task and not have somebody being mad at you."