The Dayton administration has launched a campaign to save and rebuild Minnesota’s only state-operated psychiatric hospital for children and teens, arguing that private-sector facilities don’t furnish the sustained, intensive care that some young patients require.

The Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Services facility in Willmar, which has struggled to stay afloat amid budget cuts and a shortage of professional staff, would be resurrected in an $8 million plan in Gov. Mark Dayton’s bonding proposal.

The 16-bed hospital treats children with some of the most complex and highly acute psychiatric problems in the state, but it has been operating at less than half of capacity for the past two years.

Last spring, a proposal to close the facility and shift its services to private hospitals drew heavy criticism from families and medical professionals, who argued that such a move would leave a hole in the state’s safety net.

Many of its young patients require an intensive level of longer-term care that is not available elsewhere, the families said.

“That hospital absolutely needs to stay open,” said Mike Praus of Waconia, who credits the state child and adolescent behavioral health facility with stabilizing his 17-year-old daughter after a long bout with anxiety and aggression. “If there was one heart hospital in the state, you wouldn’t close it down. It’s that essential.”

But costs and the facility’s deterioration long have been a concern. In recent years, the hospital has had trouble admitting highly aggressive patients because of infrastructure limitations, including poor security partitions. As talk of a shutdown spread, nurses and psychiatric staff began to leave for more stable jobs, prompting the child behavioral health hospital to curb its patient population.

The wait to be admitted had stretched to as long as six months, which was not tenable for children suffering with an acute psychiatric crisis.

The hospital stands alone in Minnesota in its willingness to provide extended care for children with complex psychological and behavioral problems. Statewide, private community hospitals operate about 160 psychiatric beds for children and adolescents, but patients typically are released in a few days, administrators say.

Dr. George Realmuto, medical director at the state child behavioral health hospital, said staff departures and the stress of turning away children who needed acute care wore on him physically and emotionally. “I would get calls from hospitals … saying they had a kid who really needed help, and I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “It was heartbreaking.”

After months of hand-wringing, state officials have decided to back keeping the hospital going but in a new setting. On Wednesday, Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper traveled to Willmar to argue for constructing a new, 16-bed hospital in Willmar by 2020. The proposal includes funding to increase staffing at the current facility so it can operate closer to capacity until the new site opens, Piper said.

“If we would not have this program, we would eliminate a vital safety net service for those really acute, intensive-needs children in this state,” she said.

The governor also has proposed $70.3 million in renovations at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter and $2.25 million for security upgrades at the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center.


Twitter: @chrisserres