The city of Golden Valley has rejected plans for a day treatment facility for mentally ill children, dealing a setback to advocates who say the state faces a critical shortage of such services.

LifeSpan of Minnesota had proposed using a building near a residential area to treat children with serious mental illness and had met city staff members’ conditions for a conditional use permit. But last week, the City Council voted that down 3-2 at a meeting where some citizens expressed fears about security and safety.

“We all were disappointed, saddened, surprised and shocked,” LifeSpan CEO Traci Hackmann said in an e-mail. “We felt very welcomed by the city of Golden Valley in meetings with city staff leading up to the Feb. 5 City Council meeting.”

LifeSpan, which serves 185 children at two locations, has been looking for a site in the northwest metro area for more than 18 months.

Last year, nearly three-quarters of Minnesota counties reported to the state Department of Human Services that day treatment services for children such as those offered by LifeSpan are unavailable or available with limitations.

Mary Regan, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Child Caring Agencies, said that many Minnesota counties are in violation of a 1989 state law that requires county governments to provide day treatment to eligible children. Last year, 22 percent of counties reported having children receiving residential treatment in their counties who could move to community-based options if adequate supports were available.

Though Golden Valley’s police chief told the council she was comfortable with the LifeSpan proposal, during citizen testimony some neighbors said the 5- to 18-year-olds who would be in treatment at the site pose a danger.

One man warned that neighborhood children sledding on a hill behind the building could be at risk. He called LifeSpan’s description of its program “gentle and sugarcoated.”

“This is not a time to be PC,” he said. “Everyone is at danger … they have problems that pose a risk to other human beings, and we are those other human beings.”

Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said she was disgusted by some comments. “We’re talking about innocent children who developed these illnesses, by no fault of their own, through genetics or exposure to abuse or neglect,” Abderholden said. “We should be reaching out and embracing them — not stigmatizing them.”

This week, Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris said he thought LifeSpan was unresponsive to some issues raised by residents but added he was uncomfortable with the tone of some of the discussion.

“Should I have spoken up and asked them to tone it down? I could have,” he said. “But I was trying to look at the facts.”

The council is expected to revisit the issue on Feb. 18.

“I’m hoping [additional time] will give us pause, lower our defenses and that we try to go forward together,” Harris said.

‘In everyone’s interests’

Across Minnesota, counties have reported a severe shortage of community-based therapy for children suffering from a range of mental illnesses, from eating disorders to schizophrenia.

When day treatment and other community-based programs are not available, children with severe or complex mental illnesses often end up in the more expensive residential treatment centers, Regan said.

“It’s in everyone’s interests to have access to day treatment for these kids,” she said. “Without quality day treatment, they end up being placed out of the home in more distant, more restrictive residential programs.”

LifeSpan’s Burnsville and Shoreview facilities are in commercial areas. In Golden Valley, where the program has signed a purchase agreement for a building at 345 Pennsylvania Av. S., there are houses nearby.

LifeSpan’s clients receive academic support, counseling and therapy from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays. The program has nine adults for every 24 kids. Hackmann told the Golden Valley City Council that the students are never alone.

State law requires a peace or health officer to sign off if someone is in crisis and needs a 72-hour “emergency hold” at a hospital or treatment center. To reduce demand on Golden Valley police, LifeSpan agreed to have a health officer on site. City staff members told the council that the other LifeSpan locations get 13 to 16 police calls each year.

But a citizen held up papers that he said showed 86 complaints over two years from LifeSpan’s Shoreview facility to Ramsey County, which supplies police coverage to the city. They included calls for “narcotics,” suicide attempts and disorderly conduct. That alarmed some council members, prompting City Manager Tom Burt to remind the council that it needs to make a decision based on fact, not emotion. Call sheets can contain errors, he said.

LifeSpan’s application fits the zoning for the area, Burt said, and if the council rejects it, the city needs noise measurements, property analysis and police data that validate the cited concerns about increased traffic, deflated property values and safety.

Have ‘more informed decision’

Several council members said they would welcome LifeSpan to the city if it went to a nonresidential neighborhood.

Some residents at last week’s meeting spoke in favor of LifeSpan, and Harris said more supporters have contacted City Council members. The council could vote the proposal up or down or table it, opening the door for a dialogue about the plan with neighbors.

“I hope we can have some neighborhood meetings and work through this,” Harris said. “We need as many facts as possible … and we can have a more informed decision.”

In her e-mail, Hackmann said that in 20 years, LifeSpan has had no incidents where a child presented a danger to someone outside its buildings.

“Our priority is to locate in a community that is welcoming and understanding,” she said.