Golden Valley rejects plans to treat mentally ill children

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA and CHRIS SERRES , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: February 11, 2014 - 9:51 PM

Council rejected plans for day treatment facility after citizens raised security and safety fears.

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.”

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