Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center’s grass-roots campaign evolved into a victorious movement
By DEBORAH A. MILES
During the last five years, the staff at Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center (WNYCPC), parents of patients, community supporters and legislators have worked tirelessly to stop a plan by the state to close the facility and move the children to the all adult Buffalo Psychiatric Center.
When state Office of Mental Health Commissioner Ann Marie Sullivan initially announced the plan, it spurred what ended up to be a dynamic movement that resulted in keeping the doors open to children with mental illness in West Seneca. The sweet victory came about because nobody gave up the fight. And everyone knew it was the right thing to do.
The council leader at WNYCPC, Stephanie McLean-Beathley, along with PEF retiree David Chudy, whose life-long political activism prompted him to chair the “Save Our WNYCPC” coalition, played integral roles. The coalition was launched by parents of former patients who cherished the work of WNYCPC staff, and wanted the center to remain in place, so other children could be helped.
They held press conferences where Chudy spoke passionately about the excellent reputation and success at WNYCPC. They testified at legislative hearings. McLean-Beathley even held a two-day sit-in at Fireman’s Park where she told the WNYCPC story to dozens of people. And they took gutsy risks, such as deciding to take Gov. Andrew Cuomo to court.
“One of the things that stands out is the bipartisan support from our legislators. That is something that does not happen often,” McLean-Beathley said. “Everyone supported us. No one refused to send a letter, sign a card or make a call. It was the only time in my life when people answered me by saying Yes, yes, yes.’
“Those small victories we had, led up to the major victory.”
To recognize the success of the coalition and its perseverance, PEF President Wayne Spence accompanied by Chris Runge, director of the public employees division at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), attended a PEF-sponsored luncheon at WNYCPC in late April.
“I want to thank the staff for all the sacrifices each of you made,” Spence said. “Your professionalism and continuing dedication to provide quality services to the children during a time of uncertainty further proves that PEF members are exceptional public employees.”
In the evening, McLean-Beathley attended the Western NY Labor Federation’s Annual Awards Dinner where the WNYCPC coalition was honored.
“It was a complete surprise, and so nice to be acknowledged by our union brothers and sisters from the Teamsters, AFT, Service Employees International Union and the International Brotherhood of Electricians. AFT President Randi Weingarten even sent a video.
“It was an opportunity to re-connect with people who had helped our campaign and put themselves out there for us. There was Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, state Senators Timothy Kennedy and Patrick Gallivan, the person who kept our cause alive in the Senate. It was also was an opportunity to tell people face-to-face how very much we appreciated them and to thank them for their support.
“People are watching now to see what is going to be the long term plan.”
McLean-Beathley said no money had been put into WNYCPC and there are maintenance issues that require attention.
“We have to know if those issues will be addressed. We are also looking at legislation that will prevent any governor from taking this type of action in the future. There were so many sacrifices made during the last five years. The children who were former patients and their families stood up and allowed themselves to be displayed as they told their powerful stories. There were a lot of struggles involved and this campaign had a lot of moving parts.
“We didn’t have a major budget so we relied on the generosity of others. We had access to PEF’s departments and financial support. The Civil Service Employees Association loaned us their building and helped print some of our materials.
“What we did is a model for organization, mobilization and member engagement. I would like to see PEF market this in a way so it can be an example on how to run future campaigns. We take a lot of direction from our affiliates, but I think this is a case where our affiliates could take direction from PEF.”