LARNED An upcoming consolidation at Larned State Hospital concerns some mental health experts and child advocates, who worry that the move is part of a larger trend to downsize children's mental health services.
The hospital's Beers Unit is the only state-operated inpatient treatment center in western Kansas for children under 13. March 4, it will begin sharing a building with the hospital's unit for teen-agers.
The programs will be in separate wings, director Mark Schutter said.
"The Beers Unit is not closing," Schutter said. "We won't have children and adolescents together. They will have separate school days, separate recreation time and a locked door between them."
The change was prompted by a $1.3 million budget cut handed down from the state, but it also makes sense clinically, Schutter said. The ratio of staff to patients will actually increase under the move.
Both units have been "underutilized and understaffed" for some time, Schutter said. The Beers Unit had space for 17 beds but averaged 10 patients a day last year and has eight at this time, he said.
"The adolescent unit has also decreased over time," Schutter added.
But Nolan Howell, a family advocate member of the hospital's admissions/dismissals committee, contends that state hospitals have been encouraged to "underutilize" buildings so they can close them, and it's a disservice to mental health consumers.
"No matter how they shine the light on it, they're reducing services and beds for this age group," said Howell, of Great Bend.
Other area mental health experts also voiced concerns.
"There's a need for children to have a place to go to get intensive treatment," said Jill Vsetecka, director of Barton County Special Services Cooperative in Great Bend.
Children may be placed at Prairie View in Newton in cases where inpatient treatment lasts one or two weeks, but the Larned program is needed for more severe cases Â what Howell called the "fire starters."
The only other unit of this kind in Kansas is Rainbow Mental Health Facility in Kansas City, Kan.
Vsetecka said Larned has continued to downsize over the years, and she feared the latest change eventually would lead the state to close the children's unit.
"It's an error to think those kids can all be treated in the community. They can't," Vsetecka said.
Ric Dalke, children's service director for Area Mental Health in southwest Kansas, said offices in its 13-county service area send children to Larned State Hospital if they're out of control and a danger to themselves or others.
Dalke served on a statewide hospital closure committee that stopped meeting about a year ago. At that time, there were no plans to close the Beers Unit, he said.