Treatment center discussed

Posted: Tuesday, May 21, 2002

More than 350 Alaska children are receiving mental health treatment out of state at any given time -- including five to 15 from the Kenai Peninsula. But that soon may change if Central Peninsula Counseling Services finds community support for a private residential treatment center in Kenai.

CPCS executive director James Shill and clinical director Ron Howes presented a plan for a new 36-bed adolescent treatment center in Kenai to members of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce Wednesday.

At present, the staff members said, the peninsula has no treatment options for young mentally or emotionally ill people who need more care than their families can give but less than a hospital provides. The state of Alaska has few such facilities.

The new center would serve youth, ages 12 to 17, who needed transitional care after leaving a hospital but before returning to their families or who had surpassed their families ability to care for them, but were not yet in need of hospitalization.

More specifically, said Howes, the potential patients might suffer from severe attention deficit disorder, depression or other emotional disorders.

"They would be children with a high probability to be able to integrate back into their home and community," but only with help, Howes said.

They would not be juvenile criminals or mentally impaired children with conduct disorders or in need of long-term care.

The treatment center would focus on a "least-restrictive rule," Howles said. When youth first arrive, they would be placed in a highly structured situation with lots of rules and supervision. Gradually, the imposed rules would taper down as the children learned to discipline themselves.

"It steps down until they are ready to say, 'I need to be in control of myself, so the police or school doesn't have to be in control of me,'" Howles said.

Youth also would attend school in the center. If the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District chose to team up with CPCS, the district would receive the money for 36 additional students and provide a teacher to instruct students in the center.

The primary proposed location for the center would be next to the juvenile detention center on Marathon Road. That location offers CPCS proximity to its administrative offices, city sewer and water and the airport -- as some patients would undoubtedly come from other regions of the state.

In exchange, Shill said, the construction of the facility would not only offer mental health services to families in need but also bring a $2 million construction project to Kenai, provide 40 new jobs and increase airport traffic by about 12 flights per month.

Because CPCS is a private company, construction of the facility would be funded by the organization's existing capital and by a loan, while operation would be funded by payment from patient families. The only approval the organization needs is a state license, which they anticipate will not be a problem.

However, Shill said, he does not want to go ahead with plans for construction without knowing if the community supports the addition to the area.

Questions raised at the meeting were about potential runaways from the center and where youth would go if the treatment did not work.

Shill admitted there always would be a chance that youth would run from the system, but he emphasized it is a rare occurrence and the youth served by the proposed facility would not be adolescents with violent or criminal behavior problems.

He also noted that treatment would be designed as a transitional program, not a long-term solution. Youth would be allowed to stay at the center 30 to 90 days, with the hope they would be ready to return to their families after three months. Those who were not ready would have to go to the next level of care -- probably out of state.

"But at least they can be close at first," Shill said.

CPCS already has received the support of the city of Kenai, Central Peninsula General Hospital and a number of other individuals and organizations. Shill will continue seeking public opinion, however, over the next couple of weeks.

If CPCS decides to go ahead with the plan, construction will begin next spring.

The organization already serves about 430 adults and 323 children on the peninsula, offering mental health services such as housing, case management, community integration courses, medication delivery and counseling to mentally and emotionally ill individuals. Programs include community outreach, children's services, emergency services and the Forget-Me-Not Care Center, Shill said.

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