Crownsville Hospital Center is set to shut down this week

State says closure is step to better psychiatric care

June 27, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

After almost a century spent caring for the mentally ill, Crownsville Hospital Center is shutting its doors.

Sometime this week, the state hopes to transfer the handful of patients who remain at the hospital -- a move that will complete the closure of the historic, state-run psychiatric complex in Anne Arundel County.

The shutdown will leave the state with just two primary residential facilities for the mentally ill: Spring Grove Hospital Center in Baltimore County and Springfield Hospital Center in Carroll County.

Despite strong criticism of the shutdown from some state lawmakers, doctors and relatives of Crownsville patients -- many of whom worried that the process would be fraught with complications -- the closure has so far been problem-free, according to state Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini.

"Everything has gone quite smoothly," Sabatini said. "From the beginning, our major concern was the patients, and we've been very careful to make sure the transfer goes well for all of them."

Decision to shut down

The decision to close Crownsville came after 12 years of debate among health officials and legislators over the need for three psychiatric hospitals in a state that has seen a significant decline in the demand for residential treatment -- largely because of advances in psycho-pharmaceutical medicine.

Sabatini said that closing the 200-bed facility will permit the state to develop a more efficient system for the treatment of the mentally ill.

"I see this as a very important first step in the restructuring of the public mental health system," Sabatini said. "What it will allow us to do is make outpatient care more efficient."

Crownsville's closing will save the state $12 million in annual operating costs, $5 million of which will be pumped into community-based programs for the mentally ill, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says.

For next year, however, the state has allocated $1 million of that sum for maintenance of the 1,200-acre Crownsville campus -- 500 acres of which has been earmarked for historical preservation. Maintenance will include groundskeeping, snow removal, security and utility services.

Site preservation

Founded in 1910 as the Hospital for the Negro Insane, Crownsville's population grew steadily until its peak of 2,719 patients in 1955, seven years after its integration. Because of the rich history of the campus, state historians are working to ensure that plans for Crownsville include preservation.

"Our first concern is to protect the documents and photographs -- any tangible artifacts of history," said Sandy T. Bellamy, executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.

The Maryland Historical Trust is also working with state officials to assess the land and set aside portions -- including a cemetery -- for preservation.

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens has expressed interest in the site, but is waiting for a summer-long environmental assessment of the land to determine how the county could best use the site, located on the west side of Interstate 97. For now, tenants, including the Anne Arundel County Food and Resource Bank, and Hope House drug treatment center, will be permitted to stay.

Del. David G. Boschert, an Anne Arundel County Republican, suggested opening a veterans' home or emergency psychiatric clinic on the property, which could be put up for sale if the county passes it up.

Boschert, after losing a fight to keep Crownsville open, unsuccessfully pushed to delay its closing until 2006 to conduct a study of the impact of transferring patients. Boschert's efforts were supported by several workers' unions representing hospital employees.

`It's a done deal'

According to the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, all but 19 Crownsville employees had been placed in new jobs as of Friday. When asked about the 19 remaining employees, Sabatini said: "Obviously, we are doing everything possible to help find jobs for all of them."

But the state's efforts have done little to assuage the melancholy mood of the staff.

"People are very disappointed, but now they are resigned to their fate," said John Black, spokesman for the Maryland Classified Employees Association, which represents more than 60 nonclinical Crownsville employees.

Black said several employees chose early retirement over commuting to new jobs at Spring Grove or Springfield.

"We tried to forestall Crownsville's closure, but now it's a done deal," he said.

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