Children's Minnesota is building an unheard-of feature in its new 22-bed inpatient psychiatric unit — space for parents to stay with their children.

The design was inspired by parent advocates, who questioned why parents could sleep over with children receiving cancer care but not mental health care. Hospitals tend to limit parent access to secured psychiatric units.

Separation was agonizing for Stevie Borne when she had to admit her now-teenage child to psychiatric inpatient units. Borne spoke Tuesday at Children's Hospital in St. Paul before Gov. Tim Walz ceremoniously signed bipartisan mental health legislation that helped clear the way for the unit, which will open this fall.

"It's really hard to go four days between the time that your child is whisked away in an ambulance from the ER and taken to an inpatient bed [and] before it's visiting hours for parents," she said.

The Children's expansion is part of the $92.7 million state mental health reform bill, which will fund more mobile crisis services, rapid response programs for people experiencing their first psychotic episodes, school-based treatment and inpatient care.

Similar bipartisan legislation was signed 15 years ago by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, but this bill builds on what has been learned since that time and what has worked, said Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota, a mental health advocacy group.

Funding for school-based mental health care will increase so that more than 60% of school buildings can take advantage, she said, adding, "We need to be in 100%. And in those schools where we have the programs, there's wait lists."

Children's was going to build the inpatient unit regardless but gained flexibility when the legislation expanded its licensed bed capacity.

Children's has always built space for parents in inpatient units and wasn't going to change with its first inpatient psychiatric unit — which also is the east metro's first unit that can admit children younger than 12, said Dr. Marc Gorelick, Children's chief executive. A national search found a couple of hospitals on the East Coast that were trying the approach as well.

Abderholden said this level of parent access is rare and that she wasn't even allowed to visit her child who was hospitalized for mental health care years ago. She fought to have that policy changed because it was treating parents like "the enemy" and preventing them from participating in treatment.

"Especially when you're talking about kids with intellectual disabilities and autism, you may want the parent there," she said. "They may know some calming techniques. The kid might be afraid to be there without them. There's all sorts of good reasons."

One goal is to unclog the mental heath system so that children aren't waiting for days in emergency rooms for inpatient beds to open up.

Borne said she didn't realize how lucky she was that her child got an inpatient bed in 24 hours after their first trip to the ER in 2019. It took 72 hours during an ER visit last year.

"We've been sent home many times because there were no crisis beds available for youth," she said.

The crowding has become so severe that M Health Fairview's Masonic Children's Hospital has been holding children in an ambulance garage bay. Some of those children have behavior problems rather than acute mental health disorders needing treatment, though, and need other placements than inpatient beds.

After the tour, Walz said the unit and added mental health funding are incremental progress. The governor and lawmakers 15 years from now will probably need to carry out new reforms based on what treatments have worked and what new problems have emerged.

"You think about 15 years ago, social media not being a thing — online cyberbullying not being as big as it is. The world changes," he said. "I think, to be honest, this is never a job done but a job in progress all the time."