SUMMERVILLE -- Local officials are cautiously optimistic following Palmetto Behavioral Health's decision to stop treating troubled Washington, D.C., teens at its facility here in the wake of two highly publicized escapes.
Cherie D. Tolley, Palmetto's chief executive officer, said Wednesday that 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.
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control also had cited the facility for accepting patients 18 and older as a result of out-of-state court orders, said DHEC spokesman Thom Berry. Those placements are the purview of South Carolina courts.
Removing the Washington teens brought Palmetto back into compliance, he said.
State Rep. Chip Limehouse is a Charleston Republican who has pushed to halt out-of-state placements of violent mental health patients. He welcomed Palmetto's decision to remove the Washington teens and said he hopes more improvements will follow.
"Their track record is spotty," he said. "So my suggestion to them is to keep making some of these voluntary changes until we get some semblance of order over there."
Tolley said Palmetto hopes to get final approvals from town officials 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's why the center installed a wooden privacy fence, which proved ineffective in halting the recent escapes, she said.
Palmetto also plans to install additional security cameras at the Midland Parkway facility. Center officials long have wanted to lock the doors as well but are prevented from doing so by fire codes and state regulations, Tolley said.
The doors have alarms and a 15-second delay before opening, but they don't stop people from getting out.
That said, people need to remember that the facility is aimed at providing therapeutic care, Tolley said. "We are not a correctional facility."
Summerville Town Councilman Walter Bailey, who recently toured the facility, said Palmetto's plans sound good, but the center has been long on promises and short on actions since the recent spate of problems began in April. "I'm taking what they say with a grain of salt," he said.
The Summerville center, one of three facilities operated by Palmetto in South Carolina, has endured much scrutiny since four Washington teens escaped from there on April 20. Washington officials said the teens had violent histories and that one of the youths had faced attempted murder charges.
Tolley offered additional insight on the episode Wednesday. She said the escape occurred after one of the boys learned that his grandmother, who had helped raise him, had been diagnosed with cancer. He desperately wanted to get back to see her.
He and three others boys created a distraction in the gym that night, then bolted out a back door and scaled the fence, she said.
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 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.
Still, Palmetto officials recognized the seriousness of the incident and made a change in leadership at the center, Tolley said. The center also created information packets about each patient to assist law enforcement in the event of future escapes.
Summerville police Capt. Jon Rogers said the packets are a great help.
The April 20 escape was followed by another 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 the Summerville facility 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, which is why people seek out Palmetto's care, he said. "We are really good at what we do," 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. Most patients have had trying lives and many 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."
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556.