Youth Corrections Needs More Than a Name Change: Another Shutdown

A second youth services facility run by Rite of Passage, the Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center, has been shut down by the state of Colorado a little over a month after the Betty K. Marler Youth Services Center was shut down due to unsafe conditions. As the mother of a child who was recently moved from Betty Marler to another Division of Youth Services (DYS) facility after the shut down, I believe DYS and the Department of Human Services (DHS) should run their own facilities and manage them closely to ensure the safety of the children in their care rather than contracting them out to private companies like Rite of Passage.

The DeNier facility in Durango was shut down following the investigation of two separate incidents in which youth were restrained, but according to the state report, “there was no evidence of an emergency or imminent danger that would justify the use of force in the form of a restraint.” After reviewing video footage of the two incidents which contradicted staff reports claiming the youths had initiated a physical confrontation, DHS stated that the facility “made misleading or false reports to the department” which also contributed to the suspension of the facility’s license.

Last year, Colorado passed House Bill 17-1329, which called for the more humane treatment of children in the care of the Division of Youth Corrections, including a name change to the Division of Youth Services, greater transparency regarding the use of restraints and seclusion, and the launch of a more rehabilitative, therapeutic-based pilot program. The name change was immediate, while the pilot program just began last month at the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center in Golden, according to The Chronicle of Social Change.

The two-year Aspen Pilot, according to The Chronicle, emphasizes group therapies in a homelike, trauma-responsive environment and is modeled after the Missouri Youth Services Institute (MYSI). The MYSI website boasts reduced recidivism rates, higher educational achievements, and fewer assaults on youth and staff as well as fewer uses of seclusion. Nourie Boraie, Deputy Director of Communications for DHS told The Chronicle that if youths feel safer “they are more likely to benefit from treatment, helping to reduce aggressive behavior in DYS.”

Last year’s bill requires all staff in the pilot program to be “thoroughly trained to provide trauma-responsive care” and to have “substantial knowledge of rehabilitative treatment, de-escalation, adolescent behavior modification, trauma, safety, and physical management techniques that do not harm youth.” Within the first year, the program is to completely phase out the use of physical restraints that harm youth as well as the use of solitary confinement. At the end of the pilot, the program will be evaluated by an independent contractor to determine whether it has successfully reduced the number of fights, assaults, and injuries involving youth and staff, as well as the use of restraints and seclusion.

This all sounds idyllic, but in the meantime, DYS facilities have become increasingly unsafe, and dishonesty, rather than transparency, seems to be flourishing, particularly in facilities run by Rite of Passage. In response to the incident at Betty Marler in which several girls climbed onto a roof, some engaging in sexual activity and threatening to jump off, Kent Moe, regional Executive Director for Rite of Passage told 9 News that the state report was “not consistent with the action on the ground,” and that the event didn’t “reflect the norm or the hard work that’s been done there.” Kent Moe sticks with that story when interviewed by Denver 7 News Investigative Reporter Jace Larson about DeNier, the facility which falsified reports to DYS, and a third ROP facility, Ridgeview Youth Services Center, also under investigation by the state. When asked by Jace Larson if he thought youth were one hundred percent safe there, Kent Moe hesitated before saying he did and then added that he would allow his own kids to be there.

But Kent Moe doesn’t have a child at an ROP facility, and he doesn’t get detailed reports every week from his child about the unsafe conditions there. I did, until recently when Betty Marler was shut down, and my daughter was moved to another facility. For a year and a half, the concerns I raised to the ROP administration about staff sexual abuse and drugs in the facility went ignored and unaddressed. When I suggested to the former program director that they bring in drug dogs, I was told they don’t do that because they don’t want the girls to feel like criminals. I brought this up again later with an interim program director who said drug dogs were not effective anyway. I was given the impression that ROP felt drugs were just a part of detention center life that they couldn’t do anything about.

It turns out my family is not the only one with this complaint. Jace Larson also interviewed a family member of one of the girls involved in the rooftop incident at Betty Marler who felt “brushed off” after repeatedly complaining about the intravenous meth problem at the facility. Aside from her concerns being ignored, she blames the lack of staff, poorly trained staff, and staff inattention. These are all things I also witnessed during the year and a half my daughter was at Betty Marler. Staff turnover is extremely high. This is understandable because it’s an incredibly stressful job for which staff members are not properly trained. While my daughter was there, a staff member was attacked by one of the girls with a curtain rod. I imagine that sort of thing makes one question the worth of their paycheck.

The turnover in these facilities is so high, and they are so short-staffed that ROP sometimes doesn’t get rid of staff who need to be fired when it is obvious they are not fit to work with difficult at-risk youth. According to the state report regarding the unsafe conditions at DeNier, Mr. Phillips, the staff member who instigated a physical altercation with a youth, taking him down to the floor by the neck, was not written up, suspended, or given any additional training afterward. A month later, he was still working at DeNier, even after Kent Moe told the state he had been fired and then revised his statement to say Mr. Phillips was allowed to resign.

At Betty Marler, a female staff member was accused by two of the girls of having an inappropriate intimate relationship with a third girl. After an investigation during which the former program director told me the claims were unfounded because the abuse was not caught on video, the staff member was only moved to a new unit. She later resigned. Not long after, a male staff member at Betty Marler was fired for having sex with one of the girls because there was video evidence. The second program director during my daughter’s time at Betty Marler was also allegedly fired because she had a child neglect charge on her record. How was this not caught in a background check?

Shortly before Betty Marler was shut down, I spoke with the clinical director about the increasingly unsafe conditions and the lack of staff attention there. I mentioned that I noticed there were a lot of new employees and asked what kind of training they received. The clinical director said new employees had to shadow another staff member for two weeks before they were allowed to be on their own with the girls. So, the existing staff, who in my opinion, needed refresher training at the time, were training the new staff.

I truly hope the Aspen Pilot takes the hiring of experienced staff and the training of its staff more seriously than ROP. Most of the problems in DYS facilities, even those not run by ROP, are the result of insufficient training. While the pilot aims to reduce restraints and seclusion, I believe our state representatives who aren’t in the trenches with youth and staff are a bit naïve about how often they are actually necessary. When I spoke with the interim director shortly before the rooftop incident at Betty Marler, he said he believed the new restrictions were making it harder for staff to maintain control. I believe there are times when restraints and seclusion are necessary for safety reasons – when a youth attacks a staff member with a curtain rod, or when several youths attempt to climb onto a roof, for example. But staff need to be trained how to do this properly. That’s the bottom line.

As for ROP, I believe the state has a responsibility to terminate its contract entirely to ensure the safety of the youth in DYS custody. Thanks to the other family member who also spoke up, I know I am not alone. I encourage other family members to come forward and share their story with Denver 7 News Investigative Reporter Jace Larson to make sure ROP is not allowed to continue their unsafe and dishonest practices in our state.

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