During her 16 years working at the adult psychiatric hospital in Anoka, Paula Marsh-Geurts often thought, "If only we could've got them when they were younger."

Now there's hope, she said, with the opening in East Bethel this month of Cambia Hills, Minnesota's first residential psychiatric treatment facility specifically designed for children and teens.

"This is about children being saved, lives being saved," said Marsh-Geurts, a behavior intervention specialist at Cambia Hills.

Kids between the ages of 7 and 17 with depression, anxiety, autism and other severe mental health conditions will get treatment at the $26 million 60-bed facility, designed to help fill gaps in services for youth who often cycle through emergency rooms or resort to out-of-state care.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), at the direction of the Legislature, selected Cambia Hills as one of three new psychiatric facilities for youth. The Duluth-based nonprofit leading the project, the Hills Youth and Family Services, has two similar locations; Northwoods Children's Services in Duluth is the only other psychiatric residential treatment facility in the state.

Northwoods reported a waitlist of nearly 100 in 2018, when it first opened its residential program. In 2017, more than 170 kids were served at an out-of-state residential treatment center.

According to DHS, more than 100,000 Minnesota children need treatment for serious emotional disturbances. The Minnesota Student Survey in 2016 found that more than 14,000 students had attempted or seriously considered suicide.

DHS officials said similar facilities are in the pipeline statewide to provide more resources for high-need adolescents.

"When a kid is sent out of state, it's really difficult to get engaged in therapy and be part of discharge planning," said Neerja Singh, deputy director of behavioral health at DHS. "This would really enhance family engagement — a protocol that's a must."

Singh said facilities like Cambia Hills connect families with providers in their community after treatment "so there are no revolving-door episodes happening."

A grand opening that had been scheduled for next week has been canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak and will be rescheduled.

Setting the standard

Despite emotional testimony and pleas from families citing the need for Cambia Hills, the project stalled in 2018 when the proposal to build the facility was rejected by the Forest Lake City Council. Opponents cited concerns about suitability and neighborhood safety.

East Bethel was quick to step in and take on the project, Mayor Steve Voss said.

"For our city, this is particularly impressive," he said during a recent tour of the facility, his first look at what will not only be one of the largest employers in East Bethel, but also a critical resource for families across the state.

"When I walked in here, I thought if I was a parent bringing a child away from home, I'd know I'm bringing them to the right place," Voss said.

Cambia Hills' state-of-the-art building, nestled on a wooded 37-acre homestead in northern Anoka County, has the look and feel of a school, not an institution.

"It's kind of hard to tell what it is from the outside. Is it a church? Is it a community center?" said Chief Operating Officer Dave Hartford.

Youth at Cambia Hills will live in pods with all windows facing the outdoors, one of many healing elements. Rooms were designed with safety in mind while incorporating versatile furniture, bright colors and artwork.

A key feature of the facility is its focus on education. Cambia Hills is partnering with Northeast Metro Intermediate School District 916 to provide daily instruction in each of the building's 10 classrooms. There will be one teacher and two paraprofessionals for every six students. Adjacent sensory rooms provide space for kids to safely regulate emotions.

Near the dining hall with its 30-foot vaulted ceiling, a central gymnasium incorporates large windows and acoustic panels in every color of the rainbow. The gym has served as an onboarding area for new employees as they wrap up training and get ready to admit kids beginning this week. Beneath the basketball hoop is a white board with an underlined statement to guide staffers: "We save children's lives everyday."

Marsh-Geurts said everyone is energized and grateful to have the chance to reinvent mental health care for youth.

"We have an opportunity to do it the right way," she said. "I know that we will be the example of what comes ahead. We are going to set the standard. This is how kids will be treated."

Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751