•Twelve years of Fresno County sending children miles away for psychiatric care is ending.
• Celebration for 16-bed inpatient adolescent psychiatric unit draws crowd to old University Medical Center campus.
•New adolescent center closes a painful gap in care.
There was an overall sigh of relief Monday afternoon at the grand opening ceremony for a 16-bed adolescent psychiatric health unit in Fresno.
Advocates for the mentally ill and Fresno County behavioral health staff have been working for 12 years to open an inpatient treatment center for adolescents.
“It’s just tremendous,” said Curtis Thornton, a long-time member of the county’s mental health board. “I wouldn’t miss being here.”
For years children have been shipped to hospitals hundreds of miles away and their parents questioned why they couldn’t remain in the county, Thornton said. He had no answer. Efforts to open an adolescent inpatient psychiatric had always failed.
But Monday, Thornton said: “I can tell them, ‘We’ve got it.’ ”
The county saw a chance for a unit when space was found at the old University Medical Center campus and money to remodel the building became available from the Mental Health Services Act, a state tax on millionaires. The new center has eight, double-occupancy patient rooms, a kitchen, a common area, an outside courtyard with a basketball hoop and two, one-bed seclusion rooms.
Adolescent psychiatric units are expensive to operate and the county has contracted with an outside company, Stars Behavioral Health Group of Long Beach, to run the unit. Stars was the only bidder.
Stars has established Central Star Behavioral Health to serve the central San Joaquin Valley, the county said. Fresno County supervisors approved a five-year, $22.6 million contract with the company. The unit will open with 12 beds for youngsters ages 12 to 17 but be able to grow to 16 beds.
Fresno is the fifth inpatient adolescent treatment center that Stars operates, said Kent Dunlap, senior vice president.
Patients typically stay from a few days to one to two weeks, Dunlap said. Some will need longer-term residential treatment, he said, but many can return home with support from community-based programs.
The importance of keeping adolescents close to home for treatment can’t be overstated, said Dr. Sukhjit Brar, medical director for the Fresno unit. Parents can participate in family meetings, for example, he said.
Youths on Medi-Cal, the state-federal insurance for low-income children and families, will be accepted and contracts are being developed to serve youths with private insurance from Fresno and surrounding counties, the county has said.
At the grand opening Monday, Dunlap told a group gathered in the courtyard the goal “is to soar” as Dawan Utecht, director of the county’s Department of Behavioral Health, and county Supervisor Henry R. Perea untied a ribbon on a box to release white doves.
The center is the culmination of years of hard work, but Utecht said it was worth it. “This closes a gap in care that has been painful for so long.”