Neighbors of Springfield Hospital Center want to open the lines of communication with the state-run facility near Sykesville.
With the formation of a citizens committee that would meet monthly with the hospital staff, residents hope to improve the relationship between Springfield and surrounding communities in Sykesville and Eldersburg.
What the neighbors want most -- information about patients who walk away -- is exactly what Springfield can't give them.
"It is against the law to satisfy the community's need to know," said Jeanne Sandruck-Fahey. "The hospital can't do anything against the law."
When Ms. Sandruck-Fahey and several other residents met recently with Paula Langmead, Springfield acting superintendent, patient walk-offs led the list of topics discussed.
"They took us to task and said we needed to offer a more positive image," Ms. Langmead said.
Improving that image would be a public service, said Lorrie Voytek, who lives near the hospital.
"I don't think most people realize what goes on at Springfield and the different levels of patients it helps," Ms. Voytek said.
Patients who have voluntarily committed themselves can leave the hospital at any time. Although Springfield contacts the police whenever a potentially dangerous patient walks off its grounds along Route 32, confidentiality laws prevent the hospital from notifying neighbors.
"All we need to do is listen to scanners," said Philip R. Deitchman, a member of the Citizens Advisory Board at Springfield, who also attended the meeting.
Nearly two years ago, residents asked Nelson J. Sabatini, secretary of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, to improve the system for notifying the community.
"Mr. Sabatini worked hard until the attorney general's office wouldn't let him past the Privacy Act," Mr. Deitchman said. "The laws are strict about the rights of patients."
Walk-offs are frequently by patients trying to get home, Mr. Deitchman said.
"They leave the county immediately," he said. "Stories about violent patients are blown out of proportion."
Still, incomplete information has led to panic and has caused friction between the hospital and residents.
The most recent incident occurred last month. Patrol cars and police in a helicopter with search lights combed the area around the hospital. Neighbors erroneously assumed they were looking for a Springfield walk-off and besieged the Westminster state police barracks with calls.
After a few hours, police found the object of their search, a man whose family had called police after he threatened suicide and fled his home. He was not a Springfield patient.
"Even though he was not from Springfield, another story grew out of the incident," Ms. Langmead said. "We have to control these misconceptions."
Kathleen Horneman, president of the South Carroll Coalition, a citizens action group, also fielded numerous calls during and after the incident. She organized the meeting with the hospital.
"Basically we have decided that the problem that exists between Springfield and the community is a lack of communication," Ms. Horneman said. "It is their responsibility to sensitize us, since they are the experts in the field of mental health."
With a volunteer committee, which would meet with the hospital staff, "I think we're on the right track," Ms. Horneman said.
"We agreed to do forums and sessions with their speakers bureau in our community so we become more aware of and sensitive to mental illness."
Ms. Langmead said she was "positively impressed" with the community outreach concept.
"They can use our expertise here," she said. "We have a speakers bureau available to local groups and we can open conference facilities to the community."
Ms. Horneman said opening the hospital campus "should help with problems of fear of Springfield."
She envisions field trips for children, involvement in volunteer programs and possibly a community health fair on the campus.
"We want to get more people from our community onto that campus," she said.
The "cooperative effort between community and the hospital" lacks only one element, she said.
"We need volunteers for the committee," Ms. Horneman said.