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Soul-searching, second thoughts follow vote on mental-health facility

Golden Valley neighbors find themselves divided by fear and outrage.

Sue Abderholden spoke at a NAMI MN press conference on Saturday.
MinnPost photo by Sarah T. Williams

One by one the residents approached the mic to argue against a day treatment mental-health facility for young children and teens moving into their Golden Valley neighborhood.

With rare exception, the heated and sometimes emotional testimony was dead set against the City Council issuing a conditional use permit for LifeSpan of Minnesota Inc., a state-certified youth transition program that serves young people ages 5 to 18 who (according to Lifespan’s website) “have emotional and behavioral disturbances caused by mental health disorders; neurological vulnerabilities; traumatic experiences, including abuse, neglect, and exposure to domestic violence; exposure to drugs or alcohol; disrupted attachments to adults and significant changes in the family.”

“They don’t understand why things aren’t going well in school. They don’t understand why they can’t get along at home. They don’t understand why they don’t fit in anywhere,” Lifespan President and CEO Traci Hackmann said in her testimony last Wednesday night. “We put together a treatment plan that’s very specific for their symptom reduction, and as they make progress towards their mental wellness and as they get healthy, they move back into their mainstream setting, their main education setting or less intensive services.”

MinnPost photo by Sarah T. Williams
Traci Hackmann, president and CEO of LifeSpan

Hackmann and her developer, who have comparable facilities in Burnsville and Shoreview (albeit in settings farther away from residential houses), had jumped through many requisite hoops to locate in the existing building at 345 Pennsylvania Av. S., which has been zoned for mixed use since the 1950s. Among other things, they agreed to meet a dozen or so conditions having to do with parking, traffic flow, landscaping and noise abatement; provided specifications for building renovation and upgrades; agreed to hire an on-site health worker to sign emergency hospitalization holds for clients (thereby reducing the potential for police calls and satisfying any concerns of Police Chief Stacy Carlson); and fully explored other options in more commercial areas.

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They got the green light from the Planning Commission, whose members voted unanimously to recommend approval, noting that the applicants (including developer Mike Whalen of Fundus Praedium) would be making a “significant investment in an underutilized property,” that the use was a “benefit to Golden Valley and the larger community” and that the proposed use was “consistent with the city’s intentions for the property.”

The applicants proceeded to the City Council, fully expecting words of welcome and a thumbs-up.

Instead they got hammered.

Some complained of increased traffic flow and worried aloud that property values would take a hit (though the county assessor had advised otherwise). Some accused LifeSpan of “sugarcoating” the clients’ diagnoses. But most, including some council members, expressed fears that their personal safety would be threatened. The full testimony can be found here. But here’s a sampling of the remarks:

Gil Mann, resident: Imagine this scenario: … You have one of these kids who really doesn’t want to be there. I don’t think that’s a stretch. You have one of those kids who suffered abuse. You have one of those kids who’s really angry. They get out of the van, and this kid bolts. Someone chases him. A second kid decides to bolt. Where do you think they might go? I would say the nearest house they can get into. I don’t think that’s farfetched.

[Cues a photo] … What you’re looking at here is the back yard of this facility. That’s a sledding hill. I’ve lived there for 27-28 years. I’ve seen hundreds of kids sliding on that hill from our neighborhood. It’s one of the reasons why I love Golden Valley. It’s one of the reasons why I love where I live. Because kids come in from around the neighborhood and go sliding. And they don’t even have their parents with them. Because it is safe to slide there. You move this facility in, no kids will come, nor should they.

Sue Wheeler, resident: I want to bring up the fact that a conditional use permit is [to be used] for the betterment of the community and Golden Valley. My question is how many residents and how many children in Golden Valley are being served by this? We have two school districts: Hopkins and Robbinsdale. I have worked in Robbinsdale, I have worked in Minnetonka. I understand the problems of students. My heart goes out to the parents and the families. But it also goes out to your own and your own children.

Niel Willardson: “I came here thinking there might be a way through to think about how this proposal could be approved. … But I have to say … I don’t support this proposal in any way, shape or form. And it has much to do with what I’ve heard about the nature of this kind of operation. And it also has something to do with I think a lack of a forthcoming response of the applicant about that nature of the activity that’s going to be taking place. Seeing a wide difference between the language of the proposal and the marketing materials, words like “severely emotionally disturbed” seems concerning. That suggests to me that it’s unlikely that the applicant will work with us as neighbors. In fact they’re going to try fight with us at every turn.”

Jenn Klein, resident (holding back tears): “I think our concerns started off with the traffic in the neighborhood, and it’s really turned to the thought of our kids being outside and exposed to the level of emotionally disturbed kids that are across the street from us or right on the corner.”

Peter Moore, resident: I guess my biggest concern has been the way that things were minimized. When asked about suicide, we heard about suicidal ideations. We didn’t actually hear about what was reported, which were suicide attempts on site. That’s obviously a major concern. Given the day and age we live in where young kids are liking to have sort of a media-driven suicide where they like to kill other people and kill themselves, that’s obviously a concern for us in the neighborhood – along with the runaway piece as well. We’re in the yard all the time with little kids. … And part of what we love about our neighborhood is our kids have about 20 different grandparents who all come by to hug them and love them. And certainly a situation like this I think would move my wife and the kids inside a bit more and I think work counterproductively with the community we’re trying to build.

Debbie Mann, resident: I’m on a board of a special needs organization in the Twin Cities. I care that these kids have a place and have a place to serve them –  again, just to reiterate, not in a residential area.

Others asked about what plans there were to keep kids’ “anger within the walls,” how their medications are secured, what the lockdown plans were, whether or not there would be guards on location and whether or not a fence could be built.

Against the tide

A few lone voices countered the tide of antipathy, including that of City Council member Steve Schmidgall, who said he got quite an education on the issues as he helped to build the new mental-health facility at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

“I counted 49 of you out there, he said. “I heard everything you had to say. But in my head I’m also hearing the voices of the 84 clients who are going to be served by this facility, asking for the help they need to return to a successful and productive life.”

Phillip Perl, who, at 24, was perhaps the youngest resident to approach the council members, said he was upset by the general tone of the debate. “It’s natural to be a little worried,” he said. “and it’s good to be a concerned citizen, but I think our safety isn’t under threat if this facility comes in.”

MinnPost photo by Sarah T. Williams
Phillip Perl and his father, Justin Perl, at Saturday’s press conference.

Like Schmidgall, he turned his attention to the young people who would be seeking treatment there: “I am speaking for myself, and I think I speak for my family, when I say it’s been a very comfortable life [here in Golden Valley]. I’ve never feared for my safety. I’m very grateful for my good fortune in that regard. And to be aware, from the sounds of it, these kids haven’t had that good fortune. I think it’s the right thing to do, the altruistic, empathic thing to do, to welcome this facility into our community with open arms. … I think it would be a moral transgression to say that this facility should not be here.”

After about three hours of testimony, the council voted down the application, 2 to 2, with the mayor voting no to break the tie vote. Staff was directed to prepare “findings” on police calls to other facilities, property values, adverse traffic impacts and other matters. There had been some finagling that preceded the vote. An invitation to withdraw the application was turned down. A motion to extend the decision by 60 days was voted down.

‘Steeped in fear, misunderstanding’

The general tone of the hearing got a swift response from Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota, who called a press conference Saturday, and was the first to express her dismay.

The Golden Valley City Council’s vote was “discriminatory” and “intolerant” she said. And the recording from the meeting “revealed a community steeped in fear, misunderstanding, misinformation and prejudice.”

“The residents and elected officials from Golden Valley need to know that they did not speak against ‘those’ children, but against all of our children,” she said. “One in five children lives with a mental illness. They are already living in Golden Valley and the surrounding communities. They live in every neighborhood, attend every school, worship at every faith community, play at every park. These innocent children have an illness like any other and they should not be subject to nor denied treatment because of the misinformed fears of adults.”

Others in the lineup included Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson; LifeSpan’s Traci Hackmann; Council Member Schmidgall; Mary Regan, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Child Caring Agencies; many mothers whose children have been diagnosed with mental illnesses.

By the time the press conference had been called, the Golden Valley City Council had already reversed course and issued a 60-day extension to allow for further discussion to take place before final action is taken. In a press release, the city said, “Since Wednesday’s meeting, the City has heard from many residents who support LifeSpan, and expressed concerns with a decision they believe is contrary to Golden Valley’s tolerant and community-oriented culture.”

Said Mayor Shep Harris in the press release: “Golden Valley is a safe, welcoming community that is already home to a variety of mental health facilities, some of which are in residential neighborhoods. … I  will encourage the City Council to authorize the City to partner with NAMI Minnesota to facilitate communication and dialogue between LifeSpan and the neighborhood. …”

Out of his comfort zone

Also at Saturday’s press conference was Phillip Perl – only this time, he had a buddy at the mic: his father, Justin Perl. The two had not exactly been in perfect sync on the issue when Phillip rose to speak on Wednesday.

“I was hoping my questions at the meeting would generate a fair discussion, that LifeSpan would be able to give more information, that these rather close-minded neighbors and friends of mine would begin to listen,” said Justin Perl in an interview at his home in Golden Valley Saturday. “And that didn’t happen.”

But his son and daughter, a teacher in Manhattan who was live-streaming the event and texting furiously with her brother on the developments, thought he could have done better and weren’t going to let him off the hook. They called him to account in a three-hour phone call that followed the already marathon City Council meeting.

Said Phillip: “We kind of teamed up on him.

Said Justin: “What else is new?”

Phillip said he is not accustomed to public speaking, though an 11-month fellowship with an NGO in Delhi, India, forced him out of his comfort zone, he said. The University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, staying at home during a job hunt, said he plans to stay on top of the developments around LifeSpan.

“That’s my sledding hill,” he said, of the building’s back yard. “I went sledding on that hill every winter of my childhood. And I’d send my kids to that hill if there were a school next to it.”

As for Justin Perl, he has offered his legal services as a business litigator pro bono to LifeSpan. His son’s courage in speaking out, he said, “brings me to tears. I’m very proud.”