Last month, Barbara Chittolie was told her 16-year-old son belonged in a residential program for emotionally handicapped adolescents. The youth, who had not passed a grade in eight years, would be placed in the Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents, a new $6 million facility in Rockville scheduled to open Sept. 2.
"I was so happy when I heard he had been accepted I got down on my knees that night and thanked God," the Kensington resident said, sobbing as she recounted her son's violent childhood and his frequent absences from home.
A few weeks ago, Chittolie and the parents of other students scheduled to enter the center, were told there might be a hitch.
The $2.1 million in state funds allocated for personnel had turned out to be $325,000 too little. Without those funds, center officials told the parents, 24 -- half of the residential program -- would not be able to live on the 16-acre site because no one could be hired to supervise them.
The center's day program, scheduled to open with 50 students, would not be affected.
For Chittolie and other parents it was a stunning development. For years, many of them had to send their children to institutions outside the county or even out of state because they could not care for them at home and there was no local facility. The new center offered their children the possibility of full-time care while remaining in Montgomery County and suddenly that opportunity was gone.
In the weeks since the announcement the parents have appealed to county officials, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene an even Gov. Harry Hughes to come up with money. Anger and almost a sense of desperation have kept them lobbying.
"I'm going crazy," said Chittolie. "If he (her son) can't stay there, I'm going to park him in Gov. Hughes' living room and he can see what he can do with my son."
Hughes met with County Executive Charles Gilchrist and County Council members last week to discuss the center and plans to meet with state officials next week to investigate possible funding sources.
According to state officials familiar with the project, however, the likelihood of additional funds being released is slim. There are no unallocated funds in the budget of the program's overseer -- the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Gov. Hughes informed department heads in May that deficit spending would no longer be approved routinely.
"It's very early in the fiscal year, and the governor has emphasized that he would be loath to approve any deficit spending," said Dr. Louis Stettler, deputy secretary of the Department of Budget and Fiscal Planning.
RICA officials discovered the funding shortage early in July when a request for money to hire 28 residential supervisors was rejected by the state's finance office. Live within your budget, program officials were directed.
The program had been allocated $2.1 million to hire employes at the state's base level. The high cost of living in Montgomery County led the state's mental heatlth department to approve hiring at higher salaries.
"We thought it was a routine request," assumed that when we had been given permission to hire clinical workers at a higher salary than ordinarly budgeted, the money would be granted automatically. We never dreamed we would run into this problem just prior to the school's opening."
One alternate proposed by state officials is to place 10 of the teen-agers in the Muncie Center, an adolescent facility at the state's Springfield Hospital Center in Carroll County.
Dr. Stanley Platman, assistant director of the mental health department, said it would cost as much and maybe more than the requested $325,000 to house the youths at the Muncie Center. But the staff already is there and cannot be transferred to Rockville.
"I know I'm going to get my head cut off for this one, but that's the real world," Platman said.
Sending children to the Muncie Center, however, is not an acceptable alternative for the parents or for the Rockville center's administrators.
A major purpose of the new center's program, they say, is to keep children close to home so the families can participate in counseling.
"This is a far less restrictive program," Shipman explained. "These kids have a far better chance of getting back into the mainstream when they live in their family's community. Our families will play a major role in the child's comeback."
"We're not looking to put the blame on anybody. We just want to help these kids and their parents," she said.
Program officials now are trying to pick the 24 children who will be able to stay at the center. Parents will be notified of their decision today or tomorrow.
Whatever decision, most parents said it will not be a happy one.
"What happens to those who don't get in?" demanded on parent, Linda Swanson.
"I'm exhausted, I'm depressed and all for the want of $325,000," she said. "We have a beautiful building out there that can't be used. To suffer through years of turmoil with a mentally disturbed child is pain enough. This is pushing me to the limit of human endurance." CAPTION: Picture, A view of the living quarters at the new $6 million Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents near Shady Grove. Only one of the units may open on Sept. 2. By John McDonnell -- The Washington Post