At a public meeting in Willmar Monday I was reminded of old western movies where an indian might be heard to say "White man speak with forked tongue." I remember back in 2007 when a site was chosen for the new Community Behavioral Health Hospital, nestled in a residential area just west of the Willmar YMCA. At that time state and county officials reassured neighbors that it would be a "secure facility" meaning the doors would be locked and the patients would be kept inside.
However, in the last few months local residents noticed patients outside the facility, apparently unsupervised, walking the streets, smoking in a nearby park and playground. One neighbor said he was shaken up to see a patient looking into his window, and a woman was terrified earlier this month when she found a patient in her garage. Because of the recent incidents, state officials felt compelled to hold a public meeting to tell residents why they are suddenly seeing patients roaming the neighborhood.
It turns out when the hospital opened in the Summer of 2008, a need for secure hospital beds plummetted in the state. There was, however, a need for a facility to help patients recently released from secure hospitals get further treatment and transitioned back into the community. So, without telling Willmar or Kandiyohi County officials or neighbors, the state changed the facility to a "sub-acute" facility, where patients, most of them there voluntarily, earn privileges that allow them out of the facility, with or without supervision.
Compounding the problem is the fact many of the patients smoke, but aren't allowed to smoke or have tobacco on hospital property. So they go off of state property, sometimes into neighbor's yards or the playground to smoke. And they hide their cigarettes off the property, then retreive them when they want to smoke. Rod Kornrumpf, head of state mental health services, told people at the meeting the state messed up by not telling everyone about the hospital changes. As a member of the media, I knew the changes were coming, but was not told it was no longer going to be a secure facility. One lesson to be learned...when the government tells you something, like the mental hospital they are building next door will be a locked facility, keep in mind they can change their mind.
Kornrumpf says in the future they will keep neighbors abreast of changes at the facility, however the future of the facility itself is dim, because Governor Dayton wants to close it and move the Adolescent Treatment Unit at the former WRTC campus to the 3-year-old Mental Health Facility building. If and when that happens, we'll see how the youthful patients interact with the neighbors. There are no neighbors where they are currently located at the old WRTC.