In a sign of mounting frustration with Minnesota’s mental health care system, more than 100 people packed a Forest Lake City Council hearing Monday night to support a controversial psychiatric residential treatment center for children and adolescents.
“We desperately need mental health facilities in this state and around the region,” said Marisa Gotsch, whose adult brother never received adequate treatment as a child for his mental illness and is now committed to a state mental hospital.
Despite the show of support, the proposal faces an uphill battle. Council member Mara Bain cited concerns that young patients would be housed near a residential neighborhood, two schools and a YMCA. “People want to know ... will [the patients] be able to walk around the community? If they are a threat to themselves or others, what does that mean? ” she asked in an interview.
At the hearing, however, she was vocal in her support for the project.
Gotsch joined parents, teachers, mental health counselors and others who support the 60-bed facility that would treat children, ages 7 to 17, with severe mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety, and neurological disabilities such as autism.
While the $20 million project known as Cambia Hills faces major hurdles, the hearing underscored the challenges that families across the state are facing in dealing with a chronic shortage of treatment options for the estimated 109,000 Minnesota children with serious mental illnesses.
Psychiatrists say such children are waiting up to three months for placement in psychiatric facilities.
The waits are so long they are often caught cycling through hospital emergency rooms or going out of state for treatment.
Jennifer Curtis, who lives in Forest Lake, sobbed as she described her difficulty in accessing mental health treatment for her 14-year-old daughter.
She said her daughter had attempted suicide several times and made 10 trips to the emergency room over six months in 2015.
“It was hell,” she said. Unable to find a residential treatment center near Forest Lake, the girl was placed instead in a juvenile corrections facility in Lino Lakes for nine months.
“It’s not an appropriate place for a child that never committed a crime,” Curtis said.
Cambia Hills faces an early — and possibly insurmountable — obstacle. The 40-acre site is zoned for multifamily residential use and does not currently allow for a large treatment facility. The project’s fate was debated Monday night, when members of the Forest Lake City Council decided to postpone a vote until they researched the impact of a zoning change on the entire community.
Already, the mayor and some local residents have pushed back against the zoning change, citing concerns about suitability and neighborhood safety.
“This project doesn’t fit our vision for the area,” Forest Lake Mayor Ben Winnick said in an interview Monday. “That [site] is in a corridor that we had designated for future commercial and retail growth and was never designated for a high-capacity treatment facility.”
Still, mental health advocates have hailed the project’s innovative design and potential to ease chronic bottlenecks in the state’s system for treating children with serious mental health problems.
Located at the site of an existing horse stable, Cambia Hills would include equine therapy, in which young patients would learn how to manage anxiety and anger by caring for horses.
The Cambia Hills facility would cater to children who need more intensive care than traditional outpatient therapy, but are not sick enough to be in an acute-care hospital.
Many of the patients would have severe emotional disturbances, including a history of trauma, suicidal thoughts and self harm, said Dave Hartford, administrator at Hills Youth and Family Services, a Duluth-based nonprofit spearheading the project.
Their care would be directed by a psychiatrist, and there would be at least one staff member for every three patients.
“This fills a major gap in our state’s continuum of care for high-risk kids,” Hartford said.
The opposition from the mayor points to the challenges that state officials face in trying to expand the state’s range of treatment options for thousands of Minnesota children with emotional or mental health problems.
Even seemingly innocuous projects, such as group homes for children with autism, have come under fierce attack from local homeowners.
In 2014, a day treatment center for schoolchildren with mental illnesses as common as depression and hyperactivity withdrew its application for a conditional use permit in Golden Valley, after nearby homeowners and City Council members expressed concerns about public safety at an emotional public hearing.
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres