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Doug Seiler, administrator of special populations with State Operated Services, addresses an audience Thursday during an open house on the MinnWest Technology Campus. Seiler was one of a handful of officials who were in Willmar to praise the city's 16-bed acute care facility. Officials called the facility a demonstration of the state's willingness to "step up to the plate" and provide specialized quality care for youth who suffer from severe and complex forms of mental illnesses. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Transition celebrated for kids psychiatric hospital

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WILLMAR -- The transition of the state's only behavioral health hospital for children and adolescents was celebrated Thursday in Willmar.

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State officials praised the 16-bed acute care facility as a demonstration of the state's willingness to "step up to the plate" and provide specialized quality care for youth who suffer from the most severe and complex forms of mental illnesses.

The Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Services is part of the state's "safety net" for children with mental illness, said Dr. Read Sulik, assistant commissioner for Chemical and Mental Health Services, at an open house with local and state partners. "The needs of our kids are tremendously huge," he said.

For decades, the hospital, located on what is now the MinnWest Technology Campus, had treated a variety of children with mild and severe mental health needs. At one time the facility had 60 patients who stayed for a few days or a few years.

"Some kids spent way too much of their growing up years in an institution," said Doug Seiler, administrator of special populations with State Operated Services.

A majority of kids entered and left the hospital quickly, said Dr. George Realmuto, medical director for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Services. "But there was a group of patients that didn't fit that mold."

Statistics showed 45 percent of the beds were being occupied by 10 percent of the kids, Realmuto said. The Willmar Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Services is now focusing their treatment on that 10 percent.

Patients may have severe fetal alcohol syndrome, cognitive issues, depression, traumatic brain injuries, autism and language barriers. Children who have experienced extreme abuse and trauma are also patients. "Abuse changes your biology for years and years," Realmuto said.

The typical age range is 12 to 15, but they've treated children as young as 6 and can care for those even younger. The average length of stay is 30 days; the average census is 10 patients.

Each child has his own bedroom located on one of three corridors in the building.

The beds are screwed to the floor and the walls are painted with calming colors.

There are sensory rooms with bouncing balls and mini trampolines for kids to work off energy and a "chill room" where a child can curl up in a colorful tent to be alone. A seclusion room is used only in "extreme emergencies," said Mark Kragenbring, administrative supervisor at the Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Services.

Turning the Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Services into what it is meant some painful transitions, including layoffs. The facility has the equivalent of 37 full-time employees.

Years in the making, the transition included creating out-patient treatment services and specialized foster homes trained to handle behavioral health issues to meet the needs of the majority of children with mental illness.

Another part of the transition, Sulik said, is that the hospital is no longer operated as a self-supporting enterprise program. This year the Legislature appropriated money to fund it.

There may be more transitions ahead.

Because most of the patients are from the metro area, the Willmar hospital may be replicated in the Twin Cities, Sulik said. Technology, like video sessions, may also be used for children and psychiatrists to communicate once patients leave the hospital and return home.

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Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750
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