Children’s mental health facility holds open house

Melissa Aaron gazed over the new playground equipment and minibasketball court surrounded by 12-foot walls behind a secure facility for children in crisis — and was happy.

“It’s a good place for our kids,” said Aaron, district manager for the Department of Juvenile Justice. “We need something like this.”

Aaron was one of about 40 people taking a tour of the child and adolescent crisis stabilization unit Thursday. The Bibb County-owned complex on Fulton Mill Road is run by River Edge Behavioral Health Center with state money, and it just held its first open house. The first children — who are homicidal, suicidal or psychotic — arrived at the end of August.

But the school counselors, Juvenile Court judges and other officials also saw changes since the facility opened. A new 14-seat classroom with individual study desks opened in a new building that has a similarly sized room for groups of youths. Crews cut six holes in the tall playground walls, then barred them off, so children get more light and better views of trees beyond the wall. And the dining area now has some fabric accents, which also muffle the noise of kids being kids.

The facility serves as many as 28 youths, ages 5 to 17, who have behavioral health or drug problems. The child and adolescent unit effectively takes the place of an older site at Central State Hospital that was closed.

Walter Banks, a teacher at the school, said the new classroom helps him better teach youths, including those who have been out of school for a while or are getting lesson plans from their regular teachers.

The individual study desks, each with a nearly indestructible chair, mean that he can be helping second-graders and ninth-graders in the same room.

“It’s a lot easier,” he said.

Bibb County Commissioner Lonzy Edwards, who also serves on River Edge’s board, said teamwork made the program possible. “Thanks for a job exceptionally well done,” he said.

Beth Tyler, chief financial officer for River Edge, estimated that the renovation and startup costs to the county’s property cost $800,000 to $900,000. More work was done in another wing that offers similar services for adults.

Work continues. Some areas still need grass, a laundry facility is planned, and a two-story addition with a staff break room, offices and bathrooms is under construction. River Edge Procurement Director Lesa Johnson said employees continue to tweak it to make it better for children. “It’s come a long way,” she said.

The final product drew an endorsement from Aaron, who smiled as she surveyed the complex.

“Our kids are forced to be adults far too soon. This encourages them to be children again,” Aaron said.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.