By Rose Hoban
People in the mental health community are reacting to the news that for the sixth time budget writers in the North Carolina Senate have eliminated funding for the Wright School, a Durham-based facility serving kids with severe mental and behavioral health problems.
The measure left Janet Wall almost speechless with frustration. Wall’s now-13-year-old son R (only his initial is being used to protect his privacy) was a Wright School student about two years ago.
Before going there, R had violent rages.
“[He] was so aggressive and so out of control physically that my younger child was in harm’s way,” Wall said. “I would have to bring my youngest into my room and lock the door and shower quick because I could not leave them alone.”
One rationale cited by Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Spruce Pine) for repeatedly eliminating the school in the state senate’s budget is that the facility “predominantly serves children from Wake county and the surrounding counties.”
Hise acknowledged that the geography is challenging because the school requires parents to bring their children on Mondays and pick them up on Fridays.
“But we’re taking statewide funds to provide services in some areas that are not provided in other areas of the state,” Hise said. “If they began to expand their program to include more individuals from across the state, get a better diversity from across the state… we may look at it very differently.”
Wall disputed Hise’s assertion that only parents from the Triangle benefit from the Wright School. Her family lives in Southport, in Brunswick County, and she drove R three and a half hours each way, several times each week when he was in the school. She knew parents who came from the mountains for the same reason.
“Every mile, every penny spent on gas, every tear that was shed in the seven and a half months he was there was worth it and I’d do it all over again if I had to,” Wall said.
‘You get what you put into it’
The Wright School, which opened in 1963 and is operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, serves about two dozen elementary-aged children at any given time. About twice that number cycle through the facility over the course of a year. The kids live at the school on weekdays, where they learn both their school subjects and get intensive therapy.
(In an email, a DHHS spokeswoman said the agency could not “comment on pending legislation.”)
Parents also are offered instruction on how to handle their children – who can be challenging at best – more effectively. Kids go home on the weekends where parents and kids try out all their new skills. So parents are there frequently.
“You get what you put into it,” Wall said. “I was very involved, my husband was very involved.”
Wall, who’s husband works at the Brunswick Nuclear Plant in Southport, dropped to part-time work while R was at Wright School.
“I’d take Monday and Friday off,” she said. “Once he was discharged and in a better place, I was able to go back to full time.”
Wall and her husband still drive to Durham for monthly parent workshops where they learn additional coping skills and met other parents.
“I usually go up at least once a year to speak… to the new parents to let them know that they’re not alone, that there’s support out there,” she said.
Last year, the school cost the state about $3 million, meaning the cost for treatment was about $55,000 per child who attended. Attendance is free to any family in North Carolina, no matter their insurance status.
Wall said it’s likely she would have spent two or three times that cost out-of-pocket for a private residential center because her insurance would not cover it.
“It was going to cost me anywhere from $530 to $680 a day to put my son in private therapeutic treatment,” she said. R has diagnoses of ADHD, oppositional defiance disorder, major depression and anxiety.
“This was a 10 year old that had two previous hospitalizations… and was threatening and had a plan for suicide… He was a ticking time bomb.”
When R came home after seven months at the school, Wall described him as “being in a better place.” He attends local schools now.
“They were able to get his medications correct, and on point, which is a difficult task, unless someone is watching him 24 hours a day, which a regular psychiatrist can’t do,” she said. “He learned coping skills through the Wright School that he still uses today.”
Many of the staff have been at the school for decades and several people noted the low turnover. Principal Pete Rich, who has been there two decades, makes $81,796, according to data from the Office of the State Controller. Clinical staff, who have master’s degrees and years of experience, make around $60,000. Lower level counselors make about $40,000.
“It’s not just a job to them,” Wall said. “They truly love these children and they treat them like they’re their own.”
The school currently has a seven-month long waiting list, said Linda McDonough, whose daughter Brianna was a student at Wright School years ago. McDonough now runs a private school for kids with behavioral and mental health issues in Chapel Hill.
“It’s the only hope some of these families see in the future even if it’s seven months away,” she said. “To take this hope away really confines some of these kids to the dustbin.”
McDonough said now that the Wright School is on the chopping block again, she’s hearing from panicked parents.
“They’re asking ‘is our kid going to get in,’ or ‘is our kid going to be able to stay there?’” she said last week. “It’s especially hard for those who are within a month or two months of getting in, who have waited and thought they had that hope.”
McDonough said she regularly gets calls about kids with mental health issues sitting in emergency departments for days or weeks who could use her school or the Wright School.
“The only state hospital that has a child program is [Central Regional Hospital in] Butner. We don’t need to close Wright School, we need more of them,” she said.
“If they began to expand their program to include more individuals from across the state, get a better diversity from across the state… we may look at it very differently,” said Sen. Hise when asked about opening another facility to serve other parts of the state. “My point is that they’re needed everywhere and it looks like something of privilege that someone’s got in the great Wake County.”
“I’ve been here six years, I’ve never heard a presentation from the Wright School,” said Sen. Tommy Tucker (R-Waxhaw).
When asked if lawmakers have ever invited the school’s leaders to present to them, Tucker said no.
“We’re not going to go chase them down and do that,” he said. “They ought to know that after six years they need to be here asking us what needs to be done to make it more efficient.”
Both Hise and Tucker said the school has been saved in the past by the efforts of House Appropriations chair Nelson Dollar (R-Cary).
When Dollar was asked about the budget provision, he shook his head and sighed.
“The Senate just puts that in there for negotiating purposes and it’s quite unnecessary,” he said.
“I wish it wasn’t a political football because this really is about saving lives and saving whole families,” Dollar said. “If anything, we need to be investing a lot more in these kinds of programs.”