Supporters gather to fight for Cottonwood center

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Supporters of Cape Girardeau's Cottonwood Treatment Center refuse to let the children's psychiatric residential facility close without a fight.

Nearly 100 staff members, parents and concerned residents packed a meeting room at the Cape Girardeau Public Library Friday afternoon and pleaded with Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder and House Majority Floor Leader Jason Crowell to somehow find enough money to keep Cottonwood open.

"The sad thing is we're always talking about money," said Christina Williams, a child psychiatric care supervisor at Cottonwood. "What we need to be talking about is the treatment of these children."

The local Republican legislators promised to allocate the funding in the state budget in May's proposal, but they warned that Gov. Bob Holden could still veto the appropriation or withhold funding.

"We will work with the governor to convince him this is the wrong decision for his administration," Crowell said. "We stand committed to placing that funding back into the budget."

On Thursday, Holden said he won't support the allocation if he believes it pulls money from education.

Under the plan, Cottonwood will close by June 15, according to a news release issued Friday by the Department of Mental Health. Sixteen of the 32 beds will be moved to two cottages at Southeast Missouri Mental Health Center in Farmington. This will qualify the beds for federal Medicaid funds to offset state money. Five or six Cottonwood children will be sent to Hawthorn Children's Hospital in St. Louis. The remaining 10 or 11 patients are expected to be absorbed by community providers in Southeast Missouri.

Within minutes of Friday's meeting getting started, John Cook, husband of former secretary of state Bekki Cook -- who is running as a Democrat for lieutenant governor against Kinder, stepped forward to speak.

"Do you think the governor wants to close Cottonwood, that he wants to withhold dollars from K through 12 or autism?" Cook said. "The governor has to balance the budget."

Cook said Cottonwood's lack of accreditation was part of the reason it was chosen for closing.

Cottonwood is one of two state-operated mental health treatment facilities that are not accredited to receive federal reimbursement. As a result, services are paid for by the state.

Crowell accused Cook of making a "disgraceful" campaign appearance for his wife and ignored Cook's questions about finding more revenue.

'So show me something'

But the same question was later posed by Williams.

"What actions do you plan on taking?" she said. "We're in the Show Me State, so show me something."

Kinder suggested state funding for Amtrak and the governor's Washington office could be cut.

Several staff members and parents tearfully shared stories about Cottonwood's individualized care system. They recounted stories of dedicated staff members donating their own clothing and food, of previously unreachable children making emotional breakthroughs and of families who had lost hope until they found Cottonwood.

"I know Cottonwood has saved my daughter and brought her back to me," said Rod Metzger of Cape Girardeau. "It'll cost the state a whole lot more if they close this place down -- and I'm talking in terms of prisons."

Janiece Killian of Jackson said she understood the need for a balanced budget, but she urged the legislators to save the facility she credits with saving her daughter.

"When it's your children, you see things from a completely different perspective," she said. "And the dollars are not what matter."

At the close of the discussion, Kinder said he will take back to Jefferson City the testimonials he heard at the meeting.

"Whatever cuts need to be made in the state budget, we don't need to cut a front-line service such as this," he said. "We'll work to make sure the governor's recommendation does not become law in our budget."

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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