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Ruth Meiers center marks 25 years of helping young people

Bryon Novotny, program director at the Ruth Meiers Adolescent Treatment Center, delivers a speech at the center's 25th Anniversary celebration Thursday. Photo by Kile Brewer/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Bryon Novotny, program director at the Ruth Meiers Adolescent Treatment Center, sits in his office. The center is celebrating its 25th year of operation. Photo by Kile Brewer/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

After a short stay at the Ruth Meiers Adolescent Treatment Center in Grand Forks, one teen was able to recover from a traumatic past and now hopes her relative will seek the same help.

This is not some idealized outcome. Bryon Novotny, center program director, said he’s seen this result a lot over the years — young people who arrive deeply traumatized but are determined to regain a normal life and do.

He and other staff members reflected Thursday on what they’d seen over the years as they celebrated 25 years of serving youth suffering from neglect or abuse.

The center, an expansive blue-colored house that was once mistaken for a funeral home, has so far helped about 500 teens across the state. It’s one of five of its kind in the state and the only provider in this region for adolescent mental health, he said.

Novotny grew emotional as he thanked the board members, volunteers and staff members gathered for a small ceremony there.

“There’s a lot of hard work that goes on and we need to recognize that,” he said. “As I thought about it, the hard work really started well before the facility was even here.”

Longer-term stays

A staff of 22 provides schooling, therapy and care for 10 children at a time throughout the year.

The Ruth Meiers Adolescent Treatment Center is considered the last stop for these children, who have endured a range of problems: physical or sexual abuse, neglect, suicide attempts, domestic violence, and other traumas.

“We look at it this way — we’re the highest level of care outside of an acute hospital setting,” he said. “Generally speaking, you don’t get to this level of care unless all of those other options have been exhausted.”

Most of the 20 to 25 children they admit to the program per year have experienced sexual abuse or attempted suicide, and the waiting list for the center has grown, said Novotny. While the long-term average length of stay is usually about five months, in the past year they’ve generally been staying longer, he said.

“We’re seeing more complicated scenarios with the youth,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of referrals who have been much more aggressive.”

Several reasons are behind the growing need, including greater awareness of the center itself and detention centers, said Novotny. One theory is the effect of a parent’s alcohol and drug use on their children, he said.

One expert “thinks meth use in utero has a dramatic effect on children,” he said. “There’s some real behavior issues related to that.”

‘Good kids’

The center has overcome several hurdles in its history — such as surviving a flood and facing resistance from neighbors who opposed it being built in their neighborhood — and has made a major difference in teens’ lives, said center officials.

In the last two years combined, 66 percent of youth returned home or to a relative after staying at the center, and less than 12 percent went to regular foster care or a group home, he said.

Novotny said he’s often asked if the center is considered successful, and he believes it is. Success there is measured by whether the children’s mental health has improved, or whether they’ve gained more skills or have become more independent, he said.

What has been most surprising to him over the years is how the children who have severe trauma in their background still care for their parents, regardless of what’s been done to them, he said.

“When you separate what can be some very, very difficult behavior that we’re faced with when you provide treatment, you have really good kids,” he said. “They don’t want to have difficulties. They want to be happy, they want to do well in school. They want to have what normal, healthy adolescents have but are lacking as a result of the environment they’ve come out of.” 

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit 

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