SUMMERVILLE — Palmetto Behavioral Health has stopped treating troubled teens from Washington, D.C., at its facility here in the wake of two highly publicized escapes.
Cherie D. Tolley, Palmetto’s chief executive officer, said five Washington teens have been transferred to other facilities and the center is no longer accepting new placements from the district. The move came in response to public pressure to stop the placements following the escapes and a recent assault on a staff member, she said.
Tolley said Palmetto also hopes to get final approvals this week to install a 12-foot chain link fence around the center to deter escapes. The fence would have a curved top and a section of tight mesh to prevent climbing.
Tolley said Palmetto wanted to install such a fence in 2009 but received resistance from fire officials and neighbors. That is why they put in a wooden privacy fence instead, she said. The wooden fence proved ineffective in halting the recent escapes.
Palmetto also plans to install security cameras at the Midland Parkway facility. Center officials have long wanted to lock the doors as well, but are prevented from doing so by fire codes and state regulations, Tolley said.
That said, people need to remember that the facility is aimed at provided therapeutic care, Tolley said. “We are not a correctional facility.”
The center has endured much scrutiny since four Washington teens escaped from the center on April 20. Washington officials said the teens had violent histories and that one of the youths had faced attempted murder charges.
Tolley today for the first time offered some additional insight on that incident.
The escape occurred after one of the boys learned that his grandmother, who had helped raise him, had been diagnosed with cancer, Tolley said. He desperately wanted to get back to see her. He and three others boys created a distraction in the gym that night and then bolted out a back door and scaled the fence.
Three of the teens were soon rounded up, but another made it all the way back to Washington. Tolley said that teen used a borrowed cell phone to call a relative in Washington who drove down and picked him up.
While it is true that one of the boys had faced an attempted murder charge, it was an old charge that had been filed when he was 11 years old, Palmetto officials said. That charge was dropped long before he arrived in Summerville, they said.
The April 20 “elopement” was followed by another escape on June 5 that involved a Washington teen and another boy. They were quickly captured. Then, on June 16, a Palmetto worker reported being beaten by two patients who were being punished for bad behavior. One of those teens was reportedly sent back to Washington, police said.
Tolley said Palmetto had accepted Washington teens for about a year and a half. Washington has no residential treatment centers for youths and contracts with other states to place its kids. Palmetto has accepted 11 Washington teens who, despite the recent incidents, did not represent any more of a challenge than their South Carolina counterparts, she said.
Some 90 percent of the teens treated at Palmetto are from South Carolina, said Steven Lopez, Palmetto’s medical director. Most patients stay eight to 12 months, and about 75 percent have a successful outcome with their treatment, he said.
Lopez and center director Doris Singleton lamented the publicity surrounding the recent incident and attempts by some in the community to vilify Palmetto’s young patients. Many of the youths have had very trying lives and have suffered horrible abuse at the hands of others, they said.
“Somehow we have lost the focus on the type of children we are serving here,” Singleton said. “These are kids who have been victimized.”
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