New CABHS Facility a Victory for Patients, Workers and Willmar

Back in 2015, workers at the Children’s Adolescent Behavioral Health Services facility found out about a budget plan to transition the program out of the state’s hands and into the private sector and got right to work opposing it. AFSCME members from Local 701, alongside community allies and elected officials from across the state, fought hard to keep the program alive. They pointed out that many of the youth in the workers’ care would be unable to find housing or adequate treatment with private providers, who can turn away clients arbitrarily. On top of that, the workers argued, private providers just wouldn’t provide the high quality of service the CABHS clients deserve and depend on.

Barb Laidlaw, a direct care mental health assistant at the CABHS facility and member of AFSCME Local 701, recalls the fight to keep the program running. Because the children she and her coworkers serve come from such varied backgrounds and with a broad range of diagnoses, sometimes it’s hard to find placement for clients with especially complicated needs. For those clients, placement at the CABHS facility is often the only available option.

Aleathea Modlin, a mental health LPN, AFSCME Executive Board member and president of Local 1574, works within the DHS system at a mental health facility in Brainerd. She got involved in the fight to save the program because her son, Jacob, had been patient there as a child.

“My son was out of control. I was a single mom, I had other kids I had to protect, too. He would put holes in the walls, tear up the house – even go after his sisters, who are much younger than him,” Modlin explains. After jumping in and out of mental health facilities, Jacob made it off the waiting list and began treatment at the CABHS facility in Willmar. “Him going to CABHS was a turning point in all of our lives,” says Modlin.

Jacob, now 18, recently graduated from high school – one of Modlin’s proudest moments as a mom. “Seeing my son walk across that stage was the most fabulous thing ever. I was told he would never graduate, that he’d end up in a group home and never be anything. I know that if he hadn’t gotten through that part the workers at CABHS played, there’s no knowing where he’d be. The staff there really care. They’re just wonderful people.”

Working with high-need clients like Jacob can be tough, but it’s also extremely rewarding, according to Laidlaw. “First and foremost,” Laidlaw says, “it’s about helping the kids. They’re the most important. That’s why we’re here. We serve all types, from autism to borderline personalities and everything in between. It’s very challenging at times, but so rewarding when you see them making changes,” she explains.

The workers won their fight to keep the program running, and the state agreed to continue funding. But in 2017, shortly after that victory, the lease expired on the old CABHS building and put the program back on the chopping block.

Advocates knew what had to come next. “We realized we needed a new home,” Laidlaw says. When the CABHS program began in the 1960’s, Laidlaw explains, it was a residential program for children and adolescents with behavioral health issues. These days, though, the facility is an acute care hospital – and the adapted building was already becoming a barrier to being able to provide the quality care that AFSCME members are proud to deliver.

Thus began a long-shot endeavor to secure funding for the construction of a brand new CABHS facility that would keep the program alive and allow workers to provide even better care for their clients. AFSCME members and CABHS staff from all levels, elected officials, parents of CABHS clients and community activists advocated for the funding. They testified in favor of the bill at legislative hearings, held phone banks, attended constituent meetings and lobbied at the Capitol for funding for the facility. They emerged victorious later that year with a bill carried by Rep. Dave Baker, who represents the Willmar area.

AFSCME members were crucial in making that happen. AFSCME Council 5 Legislative Representative Ethan Vogel says the front line workers at the facility sparked the initiative and took the reins in making the new CABHS facility a top priority for our union and at the Capitol. “I really can’t stress enough how driven this all was by our members,” Vogel says. “Their persistence was unreal, and it paid off.”

AFSCME CABHS staff break ground at the new 16-bed hospital in Willmar

Modlin, a longtime union activist and seasoned advocate, drove from Brainerd to the Capitol on multiple occasions to push lawmakers to keep the program alive. “I brought Jacob’s story forward to show them the need to keep the program open. These children really need help. They’re desperate,” Modlin says tearfully. “I was horrified they were going to close. What were these families going to do? Families like mine that have children that need this help?”

“When they approved that funding, I danced the biggest happy dance you’ve ever seen,” Modlin laughs. “It humbles me. It’s a big deal and I’m so happy I could be a part of it.”

Local 701 president Cathy Malvin worked alongside Laidlaw and Modlin to save the CABHS program and lobbying for the new facility. She says the years-long partnership between CABHS staff and the larger Willmar community was crucial, and that Laidlaw and Modlin were key players in making it happen – both of them willing to do whatever it took to save the program.

“The staff have been committed to this program from the very beginning,” Malvin says. “Between Aleathea and Barb continuing to go down to the Capitol to testify at hearings on the need to continue the program, it made a huge impact.” During the following two-year planning process, Laidlaw says, front line workers at CABHS were consistently consulted on ways to optimize safety, care and programming at the new facility. “We were very involved in the process,” she says. “The architects showed us floor plans and asked for our opinions.”

The new 16-bed facility will include gathering spaces for clients, visiting families and guardians; private rooms with bathrooms for the patients, and specialized materials and construction to optimize the safety of staff and clients. Laidlaw says the two outdoor courtyards and the bright, open floorplan will provide a happy, healthy environment for the children at the facility. “For the kids to get outside is so important,” she says. “To have fresh air and sunshine, to wear off energy and learn to play together. It’s vital.”

“The new facility is going to be so nice. It’s set up for us. It’s got natural daylight, lots of windows, open space. It’s modern. What we have now is just outdated, it doesn’t allow us to do the type of work we do,” Laidlaw says excitedly. She explains that moving into the new building will make life better for the workers, but it’s really about fostering an environment where kids can heal and thrive.

“This is going to help us serve our clients better,” Laidlaw says. “It’s going to be great to have a facility that’s built specifically for this program. I think the kids will just flourish in this environment, and the staff as well. It’s going to be amazing. We’ll be able to help more kids. It’s such a great accomplishment.”

Another major win: The new facility will have more capacity, so more kids will have access to the critical services our members provide at CABHS. For Modlin, that’s the brightest highlight. “There are so many families out there who really need the help. They’re dealing with kids like my Jacob in their own homes. We need to take care of people.”

One June 7, 2019 - two years after securing funding for the new building - stakeholders from across the state gathered in Willmar for a ground breaking ceremony at the site of the new hospital. For the workers, the celebration was a symbol of the power we have when we join together to get things done.

For the CABHS workers, the fight to save and rehome their program was hard, but worth the rewards. “It was a long road, but with a lot of people working together toward the same goal we did it,” Laidlaw says. “I’m just so grateful for everybody pulling together, pushing forward and not giving up. I’m also proud. It definitely makes me realize that our voice does make a difference. If we unite and stand up together for what we believe in, we can get it done.”

Modlin agrees, and adds that fighting for mental health services for the public is part of her duty as a Minnesotan and an AFSCME member. “We’re all family. We take care of each other in the state of Minnesota, and that’s what being part of a union is about. If we don’t stick together, we fall apart.”