Springfield retiree fights to keep hospital open

April 19, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

A short errand turned into a 90-minute talkathon for Betty Lea Duncan last weekend. About 15 people stopped her at the Eldersburg Kmart to ask what they could do to keep Springfield Hospital Center open.

Start with the state's consolidation task force meeting at 7 p.m. May 2 at Westminster High School, she tells everyone.

"Show your strength and support with your presence," said Ms. Duncan, who is retired after 38 years in several jobs at the Sykesville center.

Now a recruitment consultant with the Maryland Classified Employees Association, Ms. Duncan is organizing efforts to prevent the state from closing the Springfield, Spring Grove or Crownsville centers for the mentally ill.

"We have to work together and take the approach that all three could be closed eventually," said Ms. Duncan. "We, as citizens of the state, have to be concerned with the chronically mentally ill."

She plans to tell the 20 members of the Task Force to Consider the Feasibility of Consolidation of State Hospitals that none of the three regional centers should be closed.

"Each, in its own geographic setting, serves the community," she said.

"Someone wants to try a new idea that will only cost taxpayers millions and ultimately fail. Then we will have to revert to the original plan. But by that time, Springfield could be something else."

Ms. Duncan, a Sykesville resident all of her 64 years, said she is particularly concerned about the future of Springfield, which she calls "the largest, accredited state psychiatric hospital which has consistently maintained a superior rating."

She has done research on the hospital's history dating to its opening in 1897. From a 1910 publication, she quotes Superintendent Dr. J. Clement Clark: "No institution is of greater interest, not only to the people of Carroll County but to the world, than the institution that fully conforms to the humanitarian spirit of the 20th century in treating mental disease with as great skill and care as other institutions devote to the cure of physical ills."

Ms. Duncan also has cajoled municipal and county officials to support her efforts, and has marshaled support from community organizations. She is "saturating the area" with fliers to generate residents' interest in the meeting next month.

"All you have to do is walk the streets or read your newspapers and you will see the problems faced by the mentally ill who have no place to go," Ms. Duncan said. "There are too many homeless in the state now. Closing hospitals will just add more."

She urges residents to contact state legislators to oppose closures.

"Springfield can only be closed by the legislature," she said. "The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene can recommend, but the legislature decides whether to cut off the funds."

Ms. Duncan opposes the deinstitutionalization of the chronically ill. The "negative reality" of treating the mentally ill in their communities, rather than in hospitals, has been debated for 20 years, she said, and many states now are looking into reopening hospitals.

"Some patients cannot adjust to community living and will always need psychiatric help such as that offered at Springfield," she said. "It is more humane to treat them in a well-staffed, caring, funded facility than to attempt that care in a community where there is no money."

Many of Springfield's 400 patients "are not able to function in a community setting," she said.

Springfield has the state's two newest facilities -- each with 100 beds -- for the mentally ill. Lack of adequate community facilities last year led state officials to open two domiciliary-care units on the 587-acre grounds for patients who may eventually be sent back to their communities.

"We have the mechanisms for care in place and we should continue to use them," Ms. Duncan said.

While a lack of care for patients is her main concern about a possible closing, the potential loss of jobs also alarms her. Springfield Hospital Center, with a staff of nearly 1,000, is the second-largest employer in Carroll County. About 75 percent of those workers are Carroll County residents.

Residents also are concerned about what the state might do with the property if Springfield closes.

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