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KARE 11 Investigates: Why the state hospital for mentally ill children cares for so few of them

A local lawmaker lobbied to build the state’s only hospital for severely mentally ill children in Willmar. Due to lack of staffing, only 3 to 4 are there at a time.

WILLMAR, Minn. — Four years ago, Rep. Dake Baker stood with Tony Lourey, then the commissioner of the Department of Human Services, to celebrate an unlikely groundbreaking.

An old in-patient, children’s psychiatric hospital already in Willmar had become outdated and unable to treat the necessary number of kids. Baker, a Republican who represents the area, lobbied hard to put a new one there.

“Thank you for choosing us,” Baker said at the time. “We’re going to make sure we take care of these children.”

Credit: Department of Human Services
Rep. Dake Baker and Tony Lourey, then the commissioner of the Department of Human Services, at a groundbreaking ceremony in Willmar.

Flash forward to the present. As the number of youth in crisis skyrockets, most of the beds at the new Willmar Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Hospital sit empty. Despite being licensed to care for 16 children, only three to four kids get treated at a time, according to DHS.

“It’s not acceptable,” said Sue Abderholden, the executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota.

The reason so few kids can get into the hospital? The inability to find qualified staff, according to DHS, which runs the facility.

When the new facility was being considered, Abderholden said she and DHS raised red flags about finding the workforce needed in Willmar, a city of about 20,000 approximately two hours from the metro.

Credit: KARE 11
The Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Hospital in Willmar cares for only three to four children at a time, though is licensed for 16.

Abderholden said they pushed to have it built in the Twin Cities metro area or St. Cloud, but in the end, lawmakers and then-Gov. Mark Dayton sided with Baker.

“We had been doing it for decades in Willmar,” Baker said. “Why wouldn’t we just re-build it there?” 

Baker acknowledges there’s now a problem with finding the specialized staff to care for the high-need kids.

Meanwhile, kids in crisis with his histories of aggression are often being held in juvenile detentions, in emergency rooms, or out in communities without needed treatment.

KARE 11 reported one such case, in which a 16-year-old boy with severe mental illness spent days in solitary confinement at the Hennepin Juvenile Detention Center without treatment.

Credit: KARE 11
A 16-year-old, severely mentally ill boy spent days in solitary confinement in the Hennepin Juvenile Detention Center.

Records show the teenager could only talk with people – even his mother and lawyers – through a small 6-by-18-inch slot in the metal door designed to pass food trays into the cell.

Baker says he believes the hospital in Willmar can succeed, and is working with DHS to find the skilled clinicians needed to work with mentally ill and often aggressive kids.

“The state needs to step up because there’s nobody else to do it,” he said.

Among his ideas: recruitment bonuses, sign on bonuses and potential financial assistance with housing.

“We need to find new ways of getting people to look at Willmar,” he said.

“We don’t have a choice,” he added. “We have to find people that want to help these kids.”

Aberholden said she still plans to press lawmakers for a new facility in the metro to be closer to the families of many of the children who need treatment.

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