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Quick action by Albany will mean respite for families with developmentally disabled children also struggling with mental illness

Speaker Carl Heastie and Assemblyman Al Stirpe announced $2.5 million in state funds for AccessCNY.
Ellen Abbott

AccessCNY has started work developing a facility for children and young adults with both mental illness and developmental disabilities. It’s a case where a constituent called and Albany quickly answered.

John Dickerson’s nickname for his adopted son Gary, is “Gare bear”. The 16-year-old has what’s called dual diagnoses: he has a first grade IQ, has trouble communicating, combined with a background of explosive anger disorder.

"He has these mental health concerns that again affect us more severely where he will lash out when things aren't going the way," Dickerson said. "Like things trigger him and unfortunately we or our property are going to take the brunt of that."

After multiple episodes that needed police intervention, Dickerson said Gary was taken to the Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse.

That was April and he’s been there ever since. He’s not the only one. Upstate Golisano’’s Special Need’s Director Dr. Henry Roane said there are other dual diagnosis patients referred to as “boarders”.

"Once you have a child who is in the hospital like that, they're more likely to encounter situations where they might be aggressive toward a nurse or something like that," Roane said. "Every time one of those things happens, in that setting it sort of resets the timeline for the child getting out"

In the meantime Roane said families are often trying to get their children into one of only a handful institutions in the country that handle these cases. So, about three weeks ago, Dickerson, with nowhere else to go, called Assemblyman Al Stirpe’s office.

"I thought I'd get some form letter in the mail saying we'll look into it, etc. and then boom," Dickerson said.

In the three weeks since Dickerson called, Stirpe went to his boss, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who pulled $2.5 million from a discretionary fund and began work with AccessCNY to develop a 'step-down’ care unit and respite center. There are now renderings of a ten-bed center, with a potential ground breaking next spring according to AccessCNY’s Matt Seubert.

“We will offer parents the opportunity to have both planned respite for parents who are caregivers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but also have crisis respite for kids who need additional immediate support where the hospital might not be the best opportunity for them to have their recovery," Seubert said.


Stirpe said the stars simply aligned for a problem that begged a solution.

"Everybody had the same thought at the same time and all that was needed were the resources and the speaker was willing to provide those resources," Stirpe said.

Dickerson doesn’t know what the future holds for "Gare Bear", but he does have another adopted son at home, also with a dual diagnosis.

"Whether it helps our Gary in particular, or his brother, or many others that are in similar situations, we’re very thankful," Dickerson said.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.