SUMMERVILLE -- The new 12-foot-high fence outside Palmetto Behavioral Health has some neighbors feeling like a prison moved in next door. "All it needs is some razor wire," is a common refrain.
But all that chain link translates into peace of mind for folks like Peggy Williams, who lives just around the corner from the treatment center for troubled teens. The fence, outfitted with special mesh and a curved top, is designed to put an end to the highly publicized escapes that have put this community on edge in recent months.
"I love it," Williams said of the new fence. "I just wish they had done it sooner."
Palmetto officials released a statement Tuesday saying that previous attempts to install such a security fence at the Midland Parkway facility had been denied. They did not say by whom, nor would they reveal how much they paid for the new fence and other security upgrades.
John Walker, a former maintenance worker at the center, said his supervisors pushed for a more secure fence as far back as 2007, but Palmetto executives didn't want to spend the money. Another ex-employee provided The Post and Courier with a copy of a 2007 bid from a company offering to install a 10-foot fence around the center for $23,650.
Walker said Palmetto opted for a smaller wooden privacy fence because it was much cheaper. The result was that escapes became commonplace, with teens climbing the 6-foot fence without breaking a sweat, he said.
"They went over it like it wasn't even there," he said. "I kept thinking, 'What happens if one of those kids gets loose and kills somebody?' How are they going to justify that?"
Most escapes from the center have been resolved peacefully. But in 2009, a 15-year-old boy was accused of attacking and beating a 64-year-old woman after he slipped away from the center by ducking out a side door, police said.
Palmetto officials have insisted they wanted to install a more secure fence years ago, but backed off after receiving resistance from fire officials and neighbors. That is why they settled on the wooden fence, they have said.
Palmetto, which operates three treatment facilities in South Carolina, has been under scrutiny since four Washington teens escaped from the Summerville center in April. Citizens were stunned to learn the teens had violent histories and that one of the youths had faced an attempted murder charge in Washington.
Residents and elected officials questioned why such patients were being housed in a facility surrounded by residential neighborhoods and protected by little more than a privacy fence. Those concerns grew when two more teens escaped from the facility in June, and a third bolted in August.
Walker and other former workers said there were far more escapes from the facility that were never reported to police. Police records list 12 missing-person calls and nine reports of runaways from the facility since 2006. But Walker said police were seldom notified if workers could round up the escapees first. He said he participated in several such round-ups, combing nearby backyards and woods for teens who had gotten loose.
Palmetto officials did not directly respond to Walker's statements when asked Tuesday, saying that the center "does not release information concerning patients or employees."
Town Councilman Walter Bailey, a former solicitor, said he was pleased with the new fencing and hopes it will resolve concerns over escapes. "They have belatedly done what they should have done a while back and hopefully this will take care of their security issues."
State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, has pushed legislation that would bar treatment centers from accepting out-of-state placements of violent mental health patients. Limehouse said he too was encouraged by the new fencing, but state officials still need to keep an eye on Palmetto.
"I have to compliment them for making improvements where they can," he said. "But there just seems to be an unfortunate amount of incidents coming out of this one facility. My hope is that they will get out of the news and stay out of the news."
In the neighborhood around the center, residents responded to the new fence with a mixture of relief and ambivalence. Some thought it was just right; others, that it was overkill.
Evelyn Mace, who lives in nearby Oakbrook Commons, recalled seeing some Palmetto workers chasing an escapee through the neighborhood a few years back. But she said she's never had any problems with the teens there.
"They've never bothered me," she said. "I'm more concerned about teenagers on the loose around here after dark leaving trash up and down the roadway."
For Palmetto's part, the center seems ready to put the controversy behind it. "Palmetto Behavioral Health will continue to provide the utmost professional care for the emotionally and mentally challenged individuals that are cared for at our facilities," the company said in a statement. "We are also committed to continuing our work as a valued member of the business and health care community."