Fight is on to save Carlton treatment center

An effort to keep open a state-run, all-female chemical dependency center is underway in Carlton despite the state's intent to downsize its operation of publicly run treatment facilities.

Located just off Minnesota Highway 45 in Carlton, Liberalis is a state-run, all-female chemical dependency center. It's been in operation for 29 years but is being threatened with closure as part of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal. (Wendy Johnson / Pine Journal)

An effort to keep open a state-run, all-female chemical dependency center is underway in Carlton despite the state's intent to downsize its operation of publicly run treatment facilities.

"I'm very hopeful that we will at least have more time," said Stasha Sickler, one of 27 staffers at the treatment facility, Liberalis.

Located just off Minnesota Highway 45 in Carlton, Liberalis has been a fixture on the Minnesota treatment scene for 29 years, taking in women from across the state who face complicated issues involving chemical dependence, abuse and mental health.

Gov. Mark Dayton originally scheduled Liberalis to close April 1. It was his January budget proposal that set about the process of divesting the state of operating treatment centers.

"The state wants to get out of the business," said Dave Lee, director of Carlton County Public Health and Human Services. "It wants private providers to take over those treatments."


The response from staff, former clients of the facility and local lawmakers has been swift and strong. One former client's petition on to "Keep Liberalis Open" has garnered more than 1,000 signatures. State Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, and Rep. Mike Sundin, D-Esko, already have worked with the Minnesota Department of Human Services to push the closing date to July 1.

"The initial proposal to close April 1 was quite unmanageable," Lourey said. "DHS recognized that quickly and allowed us breathing room to have this conversation."

"They put me back together"

Dayton's is the second proposal from a sitting governor to close Liberalis. In 2009, Lourey and others fought to derail a similar proposal from Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Like then, the backlash now has been significant in favor of a center that Sickler said averages 22 clients in its 36-bed facility.

"We have had a huge outpouring of concerns from people who have turned their lives around with support of the dedicated staff at Liberalis," Lourey said.

Jean LaMere, 63, is one of those people. She is a one-time client who became a longtime staffer. When she arrived for her 90-day treatment in 2004, she was an alcoholic and cocaine addict who'd suffered through a long history of physical, sexual and mental abuse on the streets of Minneapolis. She was destitute with no money, no clothes and no hope.

"When I came up to Liberalis I was done," LaMere said. "I had nothing in me left - no spirit. They picked me up and put me back together."


Following her treatment, she found an apartment in Cloquet. She later joined Liberalis as a program assistant and has continued to work there for eight years. She now owns a home and a new car and is free from the disability funding she required when she was at her lowest. She credited the program's all-female staff - from physicians down to janitorial staff - with being the impetus for her turnaround.

"I had quite an abuse history and was in many hospitals and facilities," LaMere said. "The women at Liberalis had the instincts and the knowledge to know what I felt like and what I went through. It's not just a job to them. The women are all totally dedicated to helping these women."

Sickler called LaMere's recovery "a true miracle," and added that what separates Liberalis' care from private sector care is the dedicated staff. Sickler has been an office administration specialist for 13 years at the facility, and said the staff has a combined 274 years of employment at the facility - about 10 years per staff member.

"We do not have short-term employees and that's a big deal," Sickler said. "In the private sector, there's high turnover, pay is low, benefits are difficult to come by. We get the most amazing training and it pays off."

Sickler was quick to say she was not speaking on behalf of her primary employer, DHS, but as an employee of Liberalis' program body, Community Addiction Recovery Enterprise. The state-operated CARE centers include Liberalis and others - each with their own speciality. The CARE center in Brainerd specializes in treatment for Native Americans; Willmar for opiate addiction; Fergus Falls for cases with higher medical components; St. Peter and Anoka are locked facilities for people with higher behavioral issues.

In addition to Liberalis' closure, the governor's budget proposed the closure of Fergus Falls' facility within the next 12 months. The CARE centers total 174 beds and the governor's proposal would reduce the number to 70 by reducing beds in all facilities. The programs are each funded with federal dollars up to 16 beds. Beyond that, the programs are expected to be fiscally self-sustaining. At Liberalis, that hasn't been happening for a variety of reasons, including restrictions that private providers don't have - a ban on advertising and soliciting business as well as a ban on smoking that deters many clients.

"The smoking ban has affected our admissions," Sickler said.

Concerns about sustainability


A statement issued to the News Tribune from DHS Deputy Commissioner Anne Barry addressed the state's potential move away from operating treatment centers.

"We have long had concerns about the sustainability of our chemical dependency treatment programs," Berry said. "The governor's budget proposal was the first step in the process of addressing those concerns. We have been carefully listening to staff and members of the community about their needs. We will continue to work with legislators to reach a resolution."

The state legislature will take up its budget bill in May, Lourey said. Among the many conversations being had about Liberalis is the possibility of a private provider taking over, Lourey said.

"We need to let that one mature a little bit," he said.

Sickler worried that a private takeover would result in Liberalis losing its bona fide occupational qualification that allows it to employ only women without risk of a discrimination lawsuit.

"Once you get rid of it, it's done," Sickler said. "It will lose its niche of what it's been for 29 years."

A private treatment facility for women in Cloquet, Pioneer Recovery Center, has been in operation since 2009 and has expanded from 10 beds to 22. A representative for the company did not respond in time for this story, but its website illustrates that it would appear to offer the alternative placement Governor Dayton prefers.

Still, Sickler said she doesn't know of a private facility "capable of handling (our) magnitude of clients right now." She characterized Liberalis' clients as "more severe," with 90 percent having component issues beyond addiction, such as domestic violence histories and eating disorders. With the state looking at a $1.9 billion budget surplus, keeping Liberalis open would be preferable to sending its clientele out into the unknown, Sickler said.


"We see what DHS is doing; they want to be a safety net," Sickler said. "We want to be a part of the vision. I believe a majority of people can be served in the private world, but we're taking clients that are very complex."

Lourey, too, wants to see Liberalis' life extended.

"It's shown a lot of good results and helped so many women," he said. "Exactly how that's structured (in the future) I can't say. I'd like to see the ability to carry Liberalis forward and keep the doors open in Carlton."

For her sake, LaMere can't imagine her life without Liberalis in it. She's been attending meetings in St. Paul to help give a face to the relief and recovery the program can provide.

"I've dedicated my life to Liberalis," LaMere said, "because without it I wouldn't have a life."

Wendy Johnson of the Pine Journal in Cloquet contributed to this story.

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