The needs of divergent populations clash in Maplewood


A short term mental health treatment facility is looking to use space at 2715 Upper Afton Road in Maplewood, across the street from Carver Elementary.

City council faces controversial decision in February

Whether or not to allow a short-term mental health residential treatment program to operate out of the building at 2715 Upper Afton Road is sparking quite a bit of controversy in a south Maplewood neighborhood. 

The vacant office building is across the street from Carver Elementary School, and just east of Battle Creek Regional Park. The Maplewood City Council will have to make a decision in the coming weeks on the proposed facility’s application for a conditional use permit. Carver parents and nearby homeowners are expected to be in attendance to express their opposition the next time it comes before council.

A vote on the application was tabled at the council’s Jan. 23 meeting, although there was a lengthy discussion with representatives from HealthPartners, the Carver School Parent Teacher Organization and homeowners.

HealthPartners, a Minnesota healthcare provider, is proposing to purchase the two-story office building and extensively remodel it to accommodate an intensive mental health residential treatment program.

At the Jan. 23 meeting, Maplewood economic development coordinator Michael Martin updated the council members on the proposed program and the requirements for the conditional use permit that HealthPartners is seeking.

“Based on the city ordinance, licensed residential programs are allowed in any zoning district within the city ... with that conditional use permit approval,” Martin said. He added that the nine required standards for the permit have all been met.

City staff did recommend that additional screening be added to the west and north property lines to help separate the proposed treatment facility from the residential homes in the area. Police Chief Paul Schnell also recommended that the city council require HealthPartners to review its safety plan with him or another designee when the facility opens and annually after that.

“Our first and foremost goal is safety for the community; safety for the patients in the program and safety for our staff,” said Babette Apland, the HealthPartners vice president of behavioral health.

Regarding the mental health facilities already in Maplewood, Schnell said most calls to the police and ambulance dispatchers tend to be of a medical nature, though he added that periodically it can be crisis related. 

He explained that apart from review of the safety plan, one of the ways police might get involved is if a patient needs to have his or her care upgraded back into an acute setting. 

“Sometimes we may assist staff with some problem-solving things especially at night times when staff can be at its lower levels,” Schnell added.

“Building this into the [conditional use permit] ultimately provides the sense that we’re going to be able to address these things more proactively. That we can look at and talk about staff and can look at some of the clients that we may end up dealing with,” Schnell said.

 He also noted, “There’s a profound and significant need for [mental health residential treatment] services in this community.”

 

Serving a community need

The need for more residential mental health services was also recognized by multiple council members and a Maplewood resident.

Resident Tom Berkas, who works for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that the lack of intensive residential treatment services facilities in the east metro has led to an excessive demand for available slots for mental health patients at local hospitals. It’s also unnecessarily prolonged hospital stays for patients waiting to get into existing residential programs.

Council member Bryan Smith pointed out that Maplewood residents with mental illness who leave a hospital can either go to a facility like this one, or they can go home where there is no screening and possibly no additional supervision or support. He pointed out that home for them could still be across from a school in Maplewood. 

“If we know that 50 to 60 percent of these folks are going to be in our community one way or the other, I would prefer to reintroduce them into the community in a safe environment like this,” Smith said.

He also assured the concerned members of the audience that any problems with the residential treatment program would result in HealthPartners representatives being summoned in front of the council again. He added that the conditional use permit could be revoked at any time.

This, however, was little consolation for the Carver Elementary parents sitting in the audience.

 

Unnecessary risk

“We absolutely recognize the need for mental health care in our communities, and we recognize the need for business development and job creation within the city of Maplewood,” said Clara Rusch who spoke on behalf of the Carver Elementary School PTO. “Our objections to the clinic do not lie in ignorance.”

She acknowledged that children could have an encounter with a person suffering from mental illness in any part of their day, and she shared that she has personally had two such encounters that were terrifying for her and would have been even more terrifying to a young child.

Rusch explained that when she was 16 a woman put a knife to her throat in a restaurant because the woman thought Rusch and her friends were talking about her.

“The police came. This woman was someone who was known to them and was ‘usually stable,’” she said.

Rusch said that the second occurrence happened five years ago in a Minneapolis skyway. 

“I was grabbed by a man and held, and he kissed me and thrust his hips into mine. When the police found him, I learned that he was a patient at an unlocked residential treatment facility,” Rusch said.

“It is irresponsible and unacceptable for this city to knowingly increase the risk, no matter how slight, for over 500 of our children. The Carver Elementary School PTO requests that the Maplewood City Council deny the HealthPartners conditional use permit and not gamble against the safety of a single Carver Elementary School student.”

 

A look at the program

HealthPartners’ proposed intensive residential treatment services program would be a short-term mental health transitional support program located in southern Maplewood.

According to Economic Development Coordinator Michael Martin, the building is a former office building and print shop that has been vacant for many years, and HealthPartners plans to spend between $2 and $4 million renovating the interior of the building to make it a residential treatment facility. 

The two-story 10,304 square foot building was built in 1982, and Ramsey County assesed the total taxable market value for 2017 at $511,200. 

Health Partners vice president of behavioral health Babette Apland added that there will be 16 single rooms with bathrooms as well as group and individual counseling spaces within the building.

Martin said no exterior or site changes are planned at this time and before any such changes are made, the city must review and approve the design. However, staff did recommend that additional screening be added to the west and north property lines to help separate the use from the residential homes in the area.

It was explained during the Jan. 23 Maplewood City Council meeting that this program is designed for individuals discharged after a hospital stay for mental health issues.

“The purpose of the program is to provide short-term therapeutic transitional support to patients as they are getting ready to return home and to work,” Apland said. “It’s intended to give them that support and the skills so they can successfully transition back and stay healthy.”

She added that the program only accepts individuals whose mental health condition is stable.

“We have mental health professionals who thoroughly evaluate patients using standardized psychological assessments to assure that the patients are stable, that they’re not dangerous to themselves and not dangerous to others,” Apland said. 

She added, “This program does not serve people in the corrections system; it obviously does not serve sex offenders.”

Her colleague, director of community support programs Jayne Quinlan, reiterated that the proposed program is not a transition for people who are incarcerated, and added that it cannot be completed as an alternative to chemical dependency treatment when that is necessary. 

The average stay for a patient is 60 days, though some patients may stay as long as 90 days, and the majority of the patients would be Maplewood residents.

Apland said that the program would be designed to be family friendly, so the patients’ relatives will be encouraged to visit. Also, the facility will be staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the staff includes 17 full time staff, 11 mental health professionals and two nurses.

Apland explained that the proposed program would be licensed as an intensive service because the patients will be involved with programming all day and into the evening.

Quinlan added that the most intensive programming and highest number of staff are scheduled during the weekday over the times of day when most students would be in and around nearby Carver Elementary School. 

According to Apland, HealthPartners has over 20 years of experience running similar programs in St. Paul and St. Louis Park with a “strong track record of safety,” and through various other organizations within the Twin Cities there are 19 similar programs — several of which are located near schools, daycares and parks.

Martin added that a similar facility located on Viking Drive, was approved in Maplewood in 2011 and it has had no significant issues.

 

—Aundrea Kinney

Neighborly conversations

Council member Kathleen Juenemann acknowledged that the Upper Afton Road building would not be a locked facility, and asked if HealthPartners has had any trouble before with patients walking off existing treatment sites. 

Apland explained that it is uncommon for patients to decide to quit the program, but added that they are no longer allowed back into the program if they do quit before graduating from it.

The residents and parents fired back that “vague and partial answers” like Apland’s explanation were a major concern, and the council subsequently scolded HealthPartners representatives for their poor communication with the neighborhood.

In particular, Mayor Nora Slawik called the healthcare company out for not having a community meeting before a Jan. 9 city council meeting as promised. HeathPartners did end up having a community meeting Jan. 19, but it seemed to do little to assuage community concerns.

“You told us you would meet with the community, and you did not have that community meeting, and ... that caused people in our city a lot of heartache,” Slawik said.

Council Member Marylee Abrams added, “I am incredibly disappointed in how you came into our city, and you made certain assumptions about your clinic. The fact that there was such little communication with that school was very disappointing to me ... and consequently we have some very frightened parents.”

“I’m not real confident that you folks are really going to be good neighbors in our community,” she stated.

“I apologize. It is our intention to be the best neighbor we could possibly be. We are good neighbors in the facilities we have now,” responded Jayne Quinlan, HealthPartners’ director of community support programs. 

Smith explained that he has had bouts of depression, and he is a parent of an elementary-school child. Smith also shared that he is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for six and a half years.

“It’s tough because I do come in with that mixture of life experiences and the Dad in me understands what these parents are going through, but the struggling drunk in me also understands that there’s a lot of people that need help and that we need to do what we can for them,” Smith said.

 “Sometimes it’s inconvenient, and sometimes it’s messy, and sometimes we don’t have exactly the right place to put it, and sometimes it just makes us uncomfortable, but maybe that’s what we need to do for our neighbors sometimes,” he added.

With all of the different facets of the situation to consider, the council ultimately decided to postpone making a decision Jan. 23. 

The council’s next meeting is Monday, Feb. 13. 

“We would like to be known as the community where things like this can exist and survive and everyone has a positive outcome, not just the people in the facility — everyone,” Juenemann said.

“I wish HealthPartners would have made this easy for us,” Smith added.

 

Aundrea Kinney can be reached at 651-748-7822 or akinney@lillienews.com.

 

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