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NM’s largest center for troubled youths expanding

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

A last stop for troubled youths, Desert Hills of New Mexico, is embarking on a three-year, $20 million expansion and renovation project at its nearly 25-year-old campus on six acres at 5200 Sequoia NW.

Already the state’s largest residential behavioral health treatment center for children and youths, Desert Hills will expand from the current 100 beds to 120 beds while also expanding and upgrading classroom, administrative, kitchen and dining spaces.

Desert Hills, a residential behavioral health treatment center for children and youth, has grown steadily since it opened in 1990. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Desert Hills, a residential behavioral health treatment center for children and youth, has grown steadily since it opened in 1990. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“We’ve grown enormously over the years,” said Desert Hills CEO Carol Bickelman. “A lot of planning has gone into this.”

Desert Hills, owned by Acadia Healthcare Corp. of Franklin, Tenn., was not directly affected by last year’s decision by the state Human Services Department to halt Medicaid funding to 15 health care providers serving the mentally ill and substance abusers.

“We were fortunate,” Bickelman said.

Medicaid makes up about 90 percent of the Desert Hills’ revenue to serve New Mexico kids, Bickelman said. The center, which provides outpatient services as well, is also certified through Tricare, a federal program, to provide treatment to the children of active-duty service members, she said.

“We serve about 300 children a day,” she said. “They’re referred from everywhere: schools, therapists, probation (programs), CYFD (state Children, Youth and Families Department) and parents. Parents are probably the highest referral source.”

The project could expand the number served to at least 350, both residential and outpatient, she said.

The 20 additional beds may not sound like much, but Bickelman estimates there are only 250 to 300 beds statewide for children and youths to receive residential behavioral health treatment. There are more beds dedicated to the young, at hospitals, for example, but they are for a different kind of psychiatric treatment.

Any expansion of residential behavioral health treatment capacity is welcome and needed in New Mexico, said Jim Ogle, president of the Albuquerque affiliate of the Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance on Mental Health.

“At both the adult and youth levels, these places are full all the time with long waiting lists,” he said.

‘An intense place’

Clients in the residential treatment programs are a far cry from the troubled teens portrayed by James Dean and Natalie Wood in the 1955 film “Rebel Without A Cause.”

Roberta Rehberg, a teacher at La Academia de Esperanza charter school, looks over school work during a computer science lab class at the Desert Hills behavioral health center, where the charter school provides the academic program for the center's clients.

Roberta Rehberg, a teacher at La Academia de Esperanza charter school, looks over school work during a computer science lab class at the Desert Hills behavioral health center, where the charter school provides the academic program for the center’s clients.

“The one word that comes to mind is ‘trauma,'” Bickelman said. “Whether through physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect, they are exhibiting behaviors that don’t allow them to live in the community anymore.”

The philosophy at Desert Hills, and in mainstream behavioral health care in general, is to keep troubled youths in their home environment if possible, she said. Entering the residential treatment center is indicative of serious problems like being suicidal or violent.

“You’re not in Desert Hills for smoking a little pot or ditching school one day. Here it’s heroin addiction. These kids have severe issues,” she said. “It’s an intense place.”

The 24/7 treatment programs are labor-intensive. Desert Hills has about 400 employees. Bickelman estimated the expansion and renovation project will eventually add 50 jobs. While the treatment center is fenced and locked, none of the jobs at Desert Hills are armed, uniformed security jobs.

“We don’t want to be correctional in any way,” she said. “We use the nurtured heart approach. It’s an actual method we teach our staff to focus on the positive, not the negative. Reward the kids for positive behavior. Most of these kids have lived a life without a lot of positive feedback.”

In a way, Bickelman said, the staff is “reparenting” the children and youths by providing structure in their lives, understanding and support. With time, the children and youths begin to flourish, she said.

“These kids are so resilient,” she said.

Several phases

The centerpiece of the Desert Hills expansion is a new 43,342-square-foot residential building designed to the latest treatment standards for housing. Construction has begun on the $10.4 million building, scheduled for completion in April 2015.

The layout of Desert Hills' six-acre campus is shown here after the completion of the $20 million expansion and renovation project. The East and West buildings are at the bottom, while the new treatment building is at the top. Also shown is a gymnasium and a pair of group homes. (Courtesy of Stengel Hill Architecture)

The layout of Desert Hills’ six-acre campus is shown here after the completion of the $20 million expansion and renovation project. The East and West buildings are at the bottom, while the new treatment building is at the top. Also shown is a gymnasium and a pair of group homes. (Courtesy of Stengel Hill Architecture)

The building will be broken into 11 self-contained units that will vary in size from 10 to 16 bedrooms, said project architect James Zwissler of Stengel Hill Architecture in Louisville, Ky., in an email. Each resident has his or her own room.

The units reflect treatment programs such as the Child Residential Treatment Unit for ages 5 to 12, the Sexually Maladaptive Behavior Unit for boys ages 11 to 18 and the Dual Diagnosis Unit for ages 11 to 18 with both a mental illness and substance abuse. In addition, the number of units reflects segregating girls and boys.

The second phase will be the complete renovation of the existing 27,000-square-foot East Building, to be completed in 2016. The third and final phase will be the renovation of about two-thirds of the 29,500-square-foot West Building, to be completed in 2017.

The renovations will result in greatly improved space for support services, including 20 new classrooms, a central kitchen that can accommodate 144 people at a time, group meeting rooms and staff offices.

Built in the mid-1960s, the East and West buildings were originally dormitories on what was called the south campus of the University of Albuquerque, which closed in 1986. The former university’s main campus, to the north, is now home to St. Pius X High School.

Two existing, recently built group homes on the Desert Hills campus are not part of the project.

Desert Hills will continue full operation throughout the expansion and renovation project, which will be done by general contractor DeAngelis Diamond Healthcare Group of Naples, Fla.

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