Health & Medicine

Can a rehab center for American Indian youths coexist with Yolo County farmland?

A Native American youth treatment center 25 years in the making may finally find its home on a 12-acre parcel near Davis, but the federal Indian Health Service first wants to address environmental concerns from the Yolo County Board of Supervisors.

The IHS, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is eager to begin construction on the Sacred Oaks Healing Center. The planned facility would be one of 12 federally funded treatment centers soon to open across the United States, authorized by Congress in 1992 to address issues of substance abuse among American Indian and Alaska Native youths. Funding was allocated in 2015, and the Desert Sage Youth Wellness Center in Southern California, the only other IHS center in the state, is nearly complete.

“We’ve lost two generations of kids waiting for this construction project to start,” said Mark Espinosa, Youth Regional Treatment Center administrator for IHS, at a June 14 presentation to the Yolo supervisors. “This is not a detention center, but a rehabilitation center.”

The proposed 40,000-square-foot facility promises 32 beds for youths ages 12 to 17, and includes group counseling, family therapy and culturally tailored education. The IHS has purchased the land it needs from D-Q University, the former tribal college that currently occupies 642 rural acres in the surrounding area.

But the Yolo County Board of Supervisors has reservations about the project. In a 2015 letter to the IHS, then-board chairman Matt Rexroad wrote that placing a residential treatment center far from existing municipal services is “shortsighted and reckless.”

One of the biggest concerns is water. According to the letter, the center is expected to require 4.2 million gallons of water per year, which Rexroad said would put a major strain on the overburdened local water supply.

Building the center also would mean losing 12 acres of prime farmland, possibly endangering the state-listed Swainson’s hawk that nests there.

Yolo County District 2 Supervisor Don Saylor, who has been following the project since it was first proposed in 2011, said the board is open to the center’s arrival, but wants to make sure local concerns are taken into account. The IHS could proceed without county approval, but the federal agency wants support from Yolo supervisors.

“This is an agricultural area,” he said. “We understand the federal government is not subject to our requirements, but we want to have some further conversation about the interaction of their program with the character of the county. … I’d love to be able to be 100 percent supportive. Hopefully, we’ll be able to figure this all out.”

The proposed center would rest on a curve that stretches between Road 93A and County Road 31, which could pose a traffic risk if not mitigated with some kind of turning pocket, Saylor said. Flooding has occurred at the site in the past, and could make it difficult for emergency personnel to reach Sacred Oaks if Road 31 were closed in an emergency.

The IHS will conduct traffic safety and drainage studies in the coming months to find out how to minimize impacts, said Beverly Miller, the IHS area director for California.

IHS was unable to provide an estimated start date for construction. It also was unable to provide an estimated construction cost, though the Southern California center that Sacred Oaks is modeled after cost $13.7 million and took about a year and a half to build.

For those working in Native American health, the treatment facility cannot come soon enough, said Albert G. Titman Sr., the Miwuk lead counselor for the alcohol and drug program at the Sacramento Native American Health Center.

For years, he and other employees at the midtown outpatient clinic have struggled to find residential programs that can help their addicted youths, who have unique and dire mental health issues resulting from generations of trauma, he said.

“The historical government attempt at ethnic cleansing has had a huge impact on our identity as native people generationally,” he said. “The kids are holding onto the threads of cultural identity, and that plays a huge role in self-esteem, confidence.”

Suicide rates among Native American youths are higher – at 34.3 per 100,000 males and 9.9 per 100,000 females – than among any other ethnic group, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The solution, Titman said, is a return to cultural tradition and law. He called the planned Sacred Oaks Healing Center “a shared vision, and a blessing.”

“It’s a prayer that had been laid down many years ago so we could have resources to help our families heal from these things that have happened to us,” he said. “The culture, the spirituality and the ceremony are going to be what keeps us healthy, but we need places to start doing that.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola