A St. Cloud mental health treatment center for children, which state regulators have cited for repeatedly failing to protect young patients from harm, has stopped accepting patients for residential services and instead will focus on day treatment.

St. Cloud Children's Home, a 60-bed treatment center operated by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud, made the announcement just weeks after state regulators cited it for 33 violations of state rules governing the health and safety of vulnerable young patients. Regulators found that children had been allowed to bang their heads against walls and windows, resulting in multiple concussions, facial injuries and head trauma. Staff knew about the head-banging, but allowed the practice to continue, regulators found.

In an interview Thursday, Steve Pareja, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud, said a state licensing order last month was "one factor among many" in the decision to shutter the residential mental health program, which opened in 1964. The facility has seen a gradual shift away from residential services, while the population the program treats has grown more difficult and aggressive, he said.

"I would say behaviors have become more aggressive — and these behaviors escalate more quickly," he said. "We are all committed to providing safe environments ... and I needed to be assured that we could continue doing that."

The closure comes amid rising concerns about an acute shortage of psychiatric services for children and as the state weighs legislation that would expand mental health care in schools.

Statewide, there are 19 residential facilities with 744 beds certified to provide mental health services for children. But the wait to get into these facilities can be months. Many families have been forced to send their children out of state for care, said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota.

"This is a big deal in terms of access," Abderholden said. "We already have a lot of children in this state who should be in treatment but are at home or at school because they can't get into a facility."

The St. Cloud Children's Home, which still houses about 30 children and teens in its on-campus cottages in St. Cloud, has been plagued with health and safety violations in recent years.

In 2012, the site was hit with 46 licensing violations, after state inspectors found that unsupervised children were having sex with each other on the facility grounds. In one incident, a patient was forced to have oral sex by another patient while a staff member played a video game nearby, state records show.

Head-banging

The scope of the recent violations alarmed mental health advocates. Last October, state inspectors found that staff members "at all levels of authority" were aware that children were banging their heads against walls, but failed to take action.

The noise was so loud that it could be heard throughout one of the cottages, investigators found.

At least two children got emergency medical treatment. They also sustained black eyes, swollen faces, headaches and abrasions, regulators found.

Regulators also found that children were subjected to an unusual form of punishment known as "freeze" that was not therapeutic or approved by a mental health professional. During freeze, children who were noncompliant or aggressive were forced to sit in an assigned area for at least 24 hours, even after they had calmed down.

Citing the "nature, chronicity and severity" of the violations, the Minnesota Department of Human Services in early February took the unusual step of placing the center's license on conditional status for three years.

Under the conditional license, the home would have operated under greater state scrutiny and was required to submit detailed plans for improving safety and supervision of residents.

95 lost jobs

The decision to close residential services means that children and teens will receive treatment at the center and go home to their families in the evening.

The 30 children who still are housed at the facility will be discharged or transferred to other sites over the next two months, officials said.

About 95 employees will lose their jobs as part of the transition, although more jobs will become available as the center expands its day treatment program.

Pareja said that St. Cloud Children's Home has about 60 children in its day treatment programs, which he expects to expand by 30 to 40 patients.