Cambridge treatment home worries neighbors

Debbie Griffin

Isanti County News

About 50 people met March 8 at the Calvary Baptist Church to discuss a house in the neighborhood where the state will provide treatment services to mentally disabled clients starting this month.

The home sits on 6 acres northwest of Cambridge near Moon Lake on 336th Avenue. The house is operating as Minnesota Life Bridge program, the successor to the Minnesota Specialty Health System-Cambridge.

According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Minnesota Life Bridge is a “short-term crisis stabilization program that serves individuals with developmental disabilities who exhibit severe behaviors that present a risk to public safety. The program does not serve people committed as sex offenders, predatory offenders or anyone deemed ‘dangerous’ by the court.”

Homeowner Rich Schommer and Calvary Pastor David Gerhardt called the gathering and facilitated the talk. Sen. Sean Nienow and Rep. Brian Johnson attended as well and helped answer questions.

Gerhardt encouraged frank discussion and had asked the Minnesota Life Bridge program director, Steve Jensen, not to attend. Everyone expressed frustration that the state had not notified them about the home operating in their neighborhood. Though a lease was signed Dec. 11, most had learned about it within the past two weeks from the newspaper, a neighbor or the meeting invitation.

Department of Human Services Deputy Commissioner Anne Barry recently said the department has been talking to community members about a home in Cambridge and in Athens Township since September through meetings with community leaders, email updates, tours and an open house.

Barry said the Minnesota Life program began serving its first client in the Athens Township home last week, calling it “a landmark in our efforts to serve individuals with disabilities in the most-integrated setting appropriate to their needs.”

Barry added while the department is no longer accepting new admissions to the Minnesota Specialty Health System-Cambridge, located on East Rum River Drive, the six clients currently receiving services there will not be transitioning to the community-based homes. In the coming weeks, they will be ready to leave campus and return to the most-integrated community setting.

The Saturday meeting discussion established several facts: The home is licensed for three people; clients are 18 or older and stay for 90 days; the required staff-to-patient ratio is one-to-one at all times; a minimum of two professionals stay overnight; workers are state employees, not contractors; and there are alarms on all the doors and windows.

Neighbors talk 

Everyone wanted to know more about the risks and criticized placing the home in a location adjacent to the church, its K-12 school and a community playground. People talked about pushing for a law that keeps treatment programs away from any schools.

One resident asked, “Don’t they do site visits? How could you do one and not see the school right there?”

The group home operated by Minnesota Life Bridge program, the successor to the Minnesota Specialty Health System-Cambridge, sits on 6 acres northwest of Cambridge near Moon Lake on 336th Avenue.
The group home operated by Minnesota Life Bridge program, the successor to the Minnesota Specialty Health System-Cambridge, sits on 6 acres northwest of Cambridge near Moon Lake on 336th Avenue.

Schommer said the home’s director told him the state had done a site visit.

Meeting attendees figured the state “gets around notification” by classifying the home a certain way. Rep. Johnson said as a member of a related state-advisory board, he’d received information about a possible lease late last year, but the property description called Moon Lake by another name he didn’t recognize. The next notification said the lease had been signed.

Johnson wrote a letter in January to Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson asking the department to reconsider its decision to put the home near the local church and school. He said he’s drafted new legislation that “hits licensing requirements” of the homes.

He thinks information would ease people’s anxiety and they should be informed before the fact, not after. Johnson said the federal lawsuit that closed the former Minnesota Extended Treatment Options in Cambridge has had far-reaching effects.

A person asked, “How do they find these houses?” Schommer said the health system searches for rentals, and owners probably jump at the chance to sign a five-year lease.

Nobody was certain if clients could be forced to take necessary medications. People worry about the home exceeding its capacity and about sex offenders ending up there. Several neighbors said they’ll feel fearful about letting their kids play outside or walking the dog.

Regarding serious sex offenders, “They would never be in this kind of setting,” Sen. Nienow emphasized.

Gerhardt said mentally challenged people tend to have a “fight-or-flight” reaction, and he worries about them running and hiding. One woman works as a nurse and said a mentally disabled person can become defensive and punch, kick or slap.

The crowd established they should not approach a “runaway” client, but go inside and call 911. Johnson spent 18 years as a deputy sheriff and found that mentally challenged people most often become upset at themselves, exhibit self-destructive behavior and sometimes need to be “talked down” from a situation.

Schommer passed around a petition he’d drafted to the governor. One citizen suggested requiring an 8-foot perimeter fence and said the community should be able to “put conditions on neighborhood use.” It was established that it’s useless to change local zoning laws when state authority supersedes them.

A person asked: “What makes that facility more important than the people right here?” Gerhardt said the goal was to see it “not here.” One man commented the state may have done everything legally, but “they didn’t do it ethically.”

The people discussed forming a neighborhood-watch program and agreed to hold a second meeting at the church at 1 p.m. March 22 with Jensen.

Some suggest compassion, empathy

A woman stood before leaving to say she’d worked in schools for 38 years, including with special-needs individuals. She said she respects her neighbors’ opinions but advised them not to react with fear.

She said if the lack of notification is intentional, it’s because the state knows nobody would welcome a next-door treatment facility. She acknowledged risks but said it was a monitored situation and probably not as dangerous as the methamphetamine lab that had once operated in their neighborhood unbeknownst to anyone.

The woman said some clients have had a rough road and need Christian compassion, for somebody, somewhere along the line, to offer another chance. She supposed it’s nicer for anyone to have a window in front of them than an institutional wall.

Another person agreed, saying, “We have to remember, these are people.” Someone said they weren’t comfortable condemning someone or saying “you’re not good enough to be here with us.”

Many in the audience agreed but admitted to feeling distrustful.