Aurora Mayor Learns Hard Truth About Denver Homeless Firsthand

The conclusions that Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman has drawn after going undercover in Denver’s homeless camps and shelters are spot on, and those who disagree should have the courage to risk their lives the way he did to find that out for themselves. After spending a week in shelters and unsanctioned homeless camps, Coffman believes the unsanctioned camps are a result of a “drug culture,” and that the shelters are enabling this “lifestyle” of dependency. He has received much criticism from Aurora and Denver community leaders who think these views are a misconception on his part. As the parent of one of those young, meth-addicted homeless people, I can say that the true misconception is that the majority of homeless people want help but that they have nowhere to go and lack the resources to get on their feet.

According to my homeless daughter, that is just not true. Mallory would rather live on the streets of Denver than at home with her family or in a sanctioned homeless camp, simply because she wants to use drugs. She has housing options if and when she wants to turn her life around, but she has no interest in seeking help for her mental health and substance abuse issues. Make no mistake, like Coffman says, this is a lifestyle choice she is making.

We invited Mallory and her dog to stay with us for most of December rather than worrying about her living on the streets at Christmastime. She took us up on the offer, as she has done in the past, but as always, she left the comfort of our home after a few weeks to seek out drugs. She has always had the option to live with us with the conditions that she get a job and commit to sobriety. She doesn’t have an issue with getting a job, but getting clean is too much to ask. She says we should accept her for who she is, drug addiction and all, and she doesn’t understand why we won’t allow her to shoot up in our home in the room next to our teenaged son.

After Christmas, Mallory was also given the opportunity to live at the new sanctioned women’s camp at the First Baptist Church on Grant Street in Denver, but she chose not to. In fact, she hung up on the woman who manages it because she was not interested in hearing about their mental health and substance abuse services, and she was upset that there was no doggie daycare as she had been previously told. Mallory has lined up a couple jobs in the last few months but hasn’t been able to actually go to them because she says she has no one to take care of her dog. If she lived with us and got a job nearby, we would watch her dog. That’s not her problem. Drugs are the problem. She thinks she can be a “functioning drug addict” and hold down a job, but we have seen firsthand that is not the case.

In Mallory’s ideal scenario, someone would give her a free place to live where she could shoot up meth, no questions asked. She has no trouble finding free food for herself and her dog at various shelters and free needles at the Harm Reduction Action Center. People who think they are helping her by giving her spare change provide her with plenty of money for drugs.

We’ve been trying to help Mallory with her mental health and substance abuse issues for the last seven years, and everywhere we’ve turned for help, we’ve been told, “We can’t help her if she doesn’t want help.” When she was a teenager, we found this answer unfathomable and unacceptable. Surely there was something someone could do to help her. Instead, we were led down a rabbit hole of residential facilities and juvenile detention centers that just exacerbated all her problems. Now that she is twenty-one, and after seven years of hell, we finally understand. We will always be here to help her when she is ready, but there’s nothing we can do for her until then.

I imagine the taxpaying people of Denver don’t want to hear this either and are feeling equally frustrated that there doesn’t seem to be workable solution to these unsafe homeless encampments. Sweeps aren’t working. The homeless just find a new place to set up camp, and it becomes a costly never-ending cycle. I also believe that if Denver adds more sanctioned homeless camps before evaluating their effectiveness, we will see them sit empty in the near future. I once asked my daughter what percentage of the homeless she thought wanted help getting back on their feet versus what percentage of the homeless are addicted to drugs and don’t want help getting clean. She believes only five percent of Denver’s homeless population actually want help getting off the streets, and an overwhelming 95 percent just want to be left alone to do their drugs.

The sanctioned camps may be a blessing for those who genuinely want help, but the people who desperately want help are not the people who are creating the unsafe conditions on the streets of Denver. The drug addicts who aren’t interested in getting clean and don’t like the rules at the shelters and sanctioned camps are the issue. And unfortunately, they are the majority.

With stabbings and shootings having occurred at these camps and shelters in the past, Coffman is lucky that all he lost during his week on the streets was his backpack. Instead of criticizing him for putting his life on the line to actually try to find some answers, maybe Aurora Councilmembers Crystal Murillo who called it a “publicity stunt” and Alison Coombs who says he “is not listening to the experts on this issue,” along with Denver Councilmember Candi CdeBaca who thinks “the only solution to homelessness is housing,” should spend some quality time at the camps speaking to the real “experts” on homelessness, like my daughter. Sure, she would love for you to provide her with free housing, as long as there are no strings attached. But if you do that, you might as well load up the syringe for her because she will never have any motivation to get sober.

Homelessness won’t end if we don’t treat the root causes of mental illness and substance abuse, and we can’t do that without the buy-in of the person being treated. If we could, Mallory would be a happy, healthy, young woman by now. I don’t know what the solution is, but I do believe we need to stop enabling those who don’t want help turning their lives around and just want a handout so they can continue living their drug-addicted way of life.

In response to those who think they are helping people living on the streets by giving them food and money, Coffman hit the nail on the head when he said, “I would say you’re hurting these people. You’re really prolonging what is really a negative lifestyle that is going to eventually kill these people.” We keep hoping Mallory will get tired of living this way before she becomes an overdose statistic, but as long as people keep making it easier for her to maintain her lifestyle, it’s a very real possibility we worry about every day.

Improving DYS: Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services

In my blog post A Parent’s Suggestions for Improving the Division of Youth Services, I outlined several areas DYS needs to improve upon. The fourth area is mental health and substance abuse services, which I believe can be improved in the following ways:

  • Hire additional therapists and certified addiction counselors
  • Offer more individual therapy and family therapy
  • Focus less on group therapies which are not effective
  • Offer twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous for drug and alcohol abuse

The most glaring take-away from our family’s two-year involvement with DYS is that kids who are committed to DYS are not getting the help they need. DYS reports that the three-year recidivism rate for youths released from their custody is 55.2%. A January 2019 performance audit of DYS reporting revealed, however, that this statistic should be much higher. The statistic is inaccurately low because DYS failed to include adult Denver County Court convictions, crimes included under the Victim Rights Act, and all crimes committed within three years of release. As a parent who has seen youth after youth released from DYS only to return a short time later, I don’t need to look at the grim recidivism rates to know that the mental health and substance abuse services DYS provides are inadequate. I have to look no farther than to my own daughter, who was released from DYS last month, and like many others, has regrettably relapsed, returning once again to an unhealthy lifestyle on the streets of Denver.

When the majority of incarcerated kids have mental health and substance abuse issues, there needs to be a more intensive focus on mental health and substance abuse treatment. One of the reasons the services that are in place are not effective is because there simply aren’t enough mental health and substance abuse counselors at each facility. Because of their caseloads, the therapists meet with each child once a week or less. When Mallory was at the Platte Valley Youth Services Center, she was the last youth her therapist saw every week, and if her therapist happened to leave early on a Friday, Mallory wouldn’t have a therapy session that week. If her therapist had to meet with her during the week for any other reason, such as a monthly “staffing” or a behavior level review board, her therapist would not meet with her for therapy that week either. DYS therapists can’t be expected to make a difference if they are spread too thin to do their jobs.

Very few of the therapists actually have Certified Addictions Counselor (CAC) or Licensed Addictions Counselor (LAC) credentials. With the number of incarcerated youth struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, combined with the abundance of drugs in the facilities, this should be a requirement for therapists. Youths do not receive individual drug and alcohol counseling in the facilities unless their individual therapist is a CAC, or there is funding for an outside contractor. Most DYS facilities don’t even offer a twelve-step program like Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous, which many addicts attribute to their sobriety. The drug and alcohol counseling youths in DYS usually receive is in a group setting (not based on a step program), which Mallory says the kids don’t take seriously and is not particularly helpful.

DYS facilities rely heavily on group therapy sessions, but in our family’s experience, most of the progress that is made happens in individual therapy, individual drug and alcohol counseling, and family therapy which can be tailored to each child’s situation. Unfortunately, these sessions are too infrequent to be truly helpful.

The program that helped Mallory the most was the intensive 21-day program at the staff secure Excelsior Youth Center (which is now closed) during which she had individual therapy, family therapy, and individual drug and alcohol counseling three days a week each. Incarcerated kids are a captive audience for up to two years. This should be plenty of time for DYS to make a difference in their lives. Many DYS employees will tell you that a child has to want to change, and I agree with that to some extent. However, isn’t the whole point of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help them change their distorted thought patterns and, ultimately, their behaviors?

If DYS would provide the level of mental health and substance abuse services kids need, they might be able to start reporting (accurately) lower recidivism rates while ensuring a brighter future for the kids they “serve.”

Up Next: Improving DYS: Educational Opportunities

Improving DYS: Security Measures

In my blog post A Parent’s Suggestions for Improving the Division of Youth Services, I outlined several areas DYS needs to improve upon. The third area is security, which I believe is severely lacking. DYS can improve security in its facilities by doing the following:

  • End contracts with private companies for greater control over and consistency among facilities
  • Implement the same rules and procedures for every secure facility, the same rules and procedures for every staff secure facility, and the same rules and procedures for every community facility
  • Have a designated security guard at control to wand/pat down visitors who set off metal detectors
  • Conduct better searches of youth after visits and when returning from passes
  • Conduct better searches of youth rooms
  • Bring in K-9s to locate drugs in the facilities
  • Use urine analysis kits instead of saliva kits for drug testing
  • Require staff to wear body cameras for transparency inside youth rooms or other areas without video surveillance
  • Take physical and sexual abuse claims more seriously, and report them to law enforcement in addition to the Child Abuse Hotline
  • Remove for-profit GTL AdvancePay “blue phones” that allow youth to call anyone, including those who have protection orders against them

While in the custody of DHS and DYS, Mallory has spent time in a total of eight different facilities, some of them secure, some of them staff secure, and some of them not secure at all. Every one of these facilities has security issues and is rampant with drugs.

I was once told by our DYS regional director of client management that DYS has very little control over its facilities that are run by private companies, so my first suggestion would be to eliminate contracts with private companies altogether. DYS should run its own facilities to ensure that every facility is in compliance with DYS policies. This would also help establish consistency among facilities of each security level. Currently, the rules and procedures for each facility of the same security level are vastly different, which can be frustrating for youth (and their families) when they are moved from one facility to another.

Security at the entrance to these facilities is noticeably lacking. There are metal detectors in secure facilities like the Marvin W. Foote, Mount View, and Platte Valley Youth Services Centers, but they are frequently set off, and the person in the control booth is usually alone and so busy that this often goes unnoticed or ignored. There needs to be a designated security guard at the control booth in secure facilities who can wand and pat down visitors who set off the metal detector. Less secure facilities also need designated security guards to prevent youth from running away and putting themselves at risk of sex trafficking. At The Sanctuary at Shiloh House, for example, staff watched my daughter and another girl walk right out the front door, and they didn’t follow them, due to lack of staffing. Two weeks later, the girls were found in another state with two adult males.

To try to eliminate drugs in the facilities, better searches need to be conducted of youth following visits and when returning from passes. Instead of using saliva kits which aren’t effective, youth returning from passes should be given urine analysis kits to test for drug use. More thorough searches of youth rooms also need to be conducted, and the use of K-9s would help with this substantially. At the Betty K. Marler Youth Services Center, girls were injecting crystal meth with a shared needle in the middle of a typing class at one point. Staff were unable to locate the needle when its existence was brought to their attention. One of the girls fortunately came forward with it after staff searches turned up empty. At Platte Valley, some of the boys were caught smoking marijuana in a bathroom near the kitchen, and the girls frequently got away with smoking it in the showers.

For greater transparency inside facilities, especially when staff enter youth rooms and other areas where there is no video surveillance, I would suggest that staff be required to wear body cameras. A recent excessive use of force investigation involving Mallory at Platte Valley was complicated by the fact there was no video footage of the eighteen-minute incident because it occurred inside her room where there were no cameras. There has to be a way to monitor staff interactions with youth while inside their rooms.

Sadly, staff members sometimes do physically and sexually abuse youth in DYS custody. These kids’ claims need to be taken seriously. They are often not believed, their claims are not reported, or they are reported to the Child Abuse Hotline which sometimes declines to investigate, or the incident is only investigated by that county’s Department of Human Services (DHS). If there is no video footage to support the claims, the facility will do little more than move the accused staff member to another unit, potentially allowing that person to abuse another youth. Claims of physical and sexual abuse need to be reported to law enforcement, and a real investigation needs to be conducted.

Finally, the for-profit GTL AdvancePay “blue phones” need to be removed from youth facilities. These phones on the units allow youth to call anyone on the outside who allocates money to their phone number, including those who have protection orders filed against them for physically or sexually abusing or even trafficking these kids. DYS needs to value our children more than the profit they are making from the blue phones.

The safety of youth in DYS custody is not something that should be taken lightly. This is an area that needs significant and immediate improvement.

Up Next: Improving DYS: Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services

Improving DYS: Hiring and Training Requirements for Staff

In my blog post A Parent’s Suggestions for Improving the Division of Youth Services, I outlined several areas DYS needs to improve upon. The second area is the hiring and training requirements for staff, which I believe need to be more comprehensive. DYS can improve the environment inside its facilities by making these changes to its hiring and training practices:

  • Conduct more thorough background checks to include polygraphs and psychological testing
  • Create a training academy for staff (similar to those detention deputies attend) to specifically include Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, de-escalation techniques, and arrest control tactics
  • Require quarterly in-service training to ensure staff consistently follow proper procedures
  • Offer better pay for staff more in line with detention deputy salaries

I realize DYS wants to consider its facilities treatment centers, but the truth is, these are juvenile detention centers and prisons, and unfortunately a lot of the kids that are in them will be the adults in county jails and adult prisons in the future.

For the safety of both youth and staff in juvenile facilities, I propose that DYS be required to provide the same level of training to its staff as is provided for detention deputies in county jails. If the staff were properly trained in crisis intervention, de-escalation techniques, and arrest control tactics, this would help eliminate assaults and injuries to youth and staff and maybe even the need for restraints all together. Additionally, quarterly in-service training should be required to ensure that staff is continuing to follow appropriate protocol.

Staff should also undergo the same thorough background checks that are required of detention deputies, including polygraph exams and psychological evaluations. Actually, the background checks for those wanting to work with children in a detention setting should be even more thorough to prevent the sexual abuse of youth by staff members, which is all too common in DYS facilities.

Lastly, staff should be paid better to prevent high turnover. According to recent job postings in the state of Colorado, the starting salary for a detention deputy is roughly $54,000 per year. The starting salary for a Youth Services Specialist is approximately $42,000 per year. Both work in detention facilities, but one is significantly under-trained and under-paid.

Why is the safety of youth and staff in juvenile detention facilities less important than the safety of staff and adults in county jails? It’s time DYS created a better environment for kids and staff by imposing greater hiring and training requirements.

Up Next: Improving DYS: Security Measures

Improving DYS – Family Involvement

In my blog post A Parent’s Suggestions for Improving the Division of Youth Services, I outlined several areas DYS needs to improve upon. The first is facilitating family involvement, which I believe can be accomplished in the following ways:

  • Place youth in a facility as close to their families as possible
  • Advise parents of the visitation and phone call procedures during the initial call home
  • Offer a parent orientation and a parent handbook
  • Allow youth to call home at least once a week if not more
  • Allow parents to attend staffings and family therapy at convenient times to accommodate work schedules
  • Increase communication to parents from the youth’s client manager and therapist
  • Listen to input and insight from parents

Family relationships are the most important part of a child’s life. Helping to foster and repair those relationships is vital to her success upon release from DYS.

For six months of her sentence, our daughter Mallory was in a facility almost two hours away from our home. This created a hardship for us which DYS was not willing to do anything about, though there was a facility thirty-five minutes from our home. Even after we were involved in a traumatic car accident with a semi truck near the facility, and I was suffering from PTSD as a result, DYS showed no compassion for our situation. The regional director of client management suggested we visit via Skype, which was not an option since we live in the mountains where our internet connection is extremely slow. So, because of the distance, our visits with Mallory were not as frequent as we would have liked, and family therapy was impossible.

Having a child committed to DYS is a scary thing, and it would also help to ease some of the anxiety if the facilities would inform parents of the visitation and phone call procedures right away. I would even go a step further and say that there should be a parent orientation and a parent handbook so parents know what is expected of their child and what to expect themselves when they visit. Often times, families show up for visitation not knowing they need to be on an approved visitors list or that they need to schedule the visit ahead of time because this wasn’t communicated to them.

Currently, depending on the facility in which a child is placed, phone calls home are infrequent and brief. At the Platte Valley Youth Services Center, for example, the facility is only required to allow youth to call home twice a month for five minutes. This is not enough time, especially if the child is placed two hours away from home, making it difficult for her family to visit. In other facilities, phone calls home may be as often as twice a week which is a significant improvement, but this is something that should be consistent from facility to facility.

Communication between parents and their child’s therapist and DYS client manager is also lacking. When a child can’t call home, parents rely on these professionals to let them know what is going on with their child. We were not notified on occasions when Mallory received IRs (incident reports), lost her reward level, was restrained, or when she was placed on suicide watch. Parents shouldn’t be kept in the dark about their child’s behavior, consequences she receives, or her mental health condition.

Monthly “staffings” and family therapy should also be offered at convenient times to increase family involvement. By the time a child has been committed to DYS, some parents may have already exhausted all of their vacation and sick time, or they may have even lost their jobs to attend various court proceedings, staffings, and family therapy sessions. By the time Mallory was committed to DYS, I had already left my job for this very reason. This is another valid argument for placing a child close to home. It reduces the amount of time parents need to take off work to attend staffings. When Mallory was at Platte Valley, we had to block off five hours of the day for staffings because of the drive time.

Though parents are considered part of the child’s multidisciplinary team (MDT), sometimes decisions are made without parent insight or involvement, and sometimes our input is even ignored. We parents know our kids better than anyone else and should be included in the decision-making process to help them achieve success. We weren’t involved in the decision to move Mallory to Platte Valley, and our concerns about the facility being too restrictive of an environment for her in addition to the distance from home were ignored until her time there ended in an excessive use of force investigation. Even after the investigation, she was only moved back to the Denver area when the long drive became too inconvenient for her new client manager, her transition worker, and for her transition to parole. No one cared that it was not the right environment for her or that the location was inconvenient and stressful for us.

DYS needs to have more compassion for families and what we have been through, as well as a better understanding of just how vital we are to our children’s success.

Up Next: Improving DYS: Hiring and Training Requirements for Staff

A Parent’s Suggestions for Improving the Division of Youth Services

After two years in various Division of Youth Services (DYS) facilities, I am happy to report that my daughter has returned home, and things are going well. Now that we have our daughter back and we’ve had some time to adjust to life as a family of four again, I’ve been reflecting on our difficult two-year involvement with DYS. For those families who are still enduring life inside a DYS facility and for those who are just beginning to embark on their challenging journey, I believe DYS needs to make some significant changes.

The areas I recognize as needing considerable improvement are: family involvement, the hiring and training requirements for staff, facility security, mental health and substance abuse services, educational services, the reward/punishment system, and transition to parole. I have outlined my suggestions for improvement and will share my thoughts on each area in detail over the next several weeks.

Facilitate Family Involvement

  • Place youth in a facility as close to their families as possible
  • Advise parents of the visitation and phone call procedures during the initial call home
  • Offer a parent orientation and a parent handbook
  • Allow youth to call home at least once a week if not more
  • Allow parents to attend staffings and family therapy at convenient times to accommodate work schedules
  • Increase communication to parents from the youth’s client manager and therapist
  • Listen to input and insight from parents

Impose Greater Hiring and Training Requirements for Staff

  • Conduct more extensive background checks to include polygraphs and psychological testing
  • Create a training academy for staff (similar to those detention deputies attend) to especially include Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, de-escalation techniques, and arrest control tactics
  • Require quarterly in-service training to ensure staff are consistently following proper procedures
  • Offer better pay for staff more in line with detention deputy salaries

Increase Security Measures

  • End contracts with private companies for greater control over and consistency among facilities
  • Implement the same rules and procedures for every secure facility, the same rules and procedures for every staff secure facility, and the same rules and procedures for every community facility
  • Have a designated security guard at control to wand/pat down visitors who set off metal detectors
  • Conduct better searches of youth after visits and when returning from passes
  • Conduct better searches of youth rooms
  • Bring in K-9s to locate drugs in the facilities
  • Use urine analysis kits instead of saliva kits for drug testing
  • Require staff to wear body cameras for transparency inside youth rooms or other areas without video surveillance
  • Take physical and sexual abuse claims more seriously and report them to law enforcement in addition to the Child Abuse Hotline
  • Remove for-profit “Blue Phones” that allow youth to call anyone, including those who have protection orders against them

Improve Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services

  • Hire additional therapists and certified addiction counselors
  • Offer more individual therapy and family therapy
  • Focus less on group therapies which are not effective
  • Offer twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous for drug and alcohol abuse

Offer Additional Educational Opportunities

  • Offer life skills and vocational programming for youth who have graduated or have their GEDs
  • Offer equal opportunities for both girls and boys
  • Offer more opportunities for physical education

Change Aspects of the Reward and Punishment System

  • Make achieving behavior levels more desirable by offering better incentives
  • Refrain from taking away family visits and phone calls home as punishment for bad behavior

Facilitate a Smooth Transition to Parole

  • Develop relationships with employers and housing in the community for kids who are over eighteen and are transitioning back into the community on their own
  • Help facilitate work furloughs during transition back into the community
  • Eliminate redundant parole hearings for kids who have completed their entire mandatory sentence and must be paroled

Excessive Use of Force Investigated at Platte Valley Youth Services Center

This past December, my daughter filed an excessive use of force complaint against the Platte Valley Youth Services Center after she was taken down to the ground, handcuffed, carried to her room by six staff members, and then placed in a leg restraint and a helmet. Shortly after, my husband and I were rudely removed from the facility for inquiring about the incident and denied our regularly scheduled visit with her.

When Mallory was transferred to Platte Valley after her previous facility was shut down due to unsafe conditions, we had hoped she was being moved to a safer environment. We had heard that Platte Valley ran a tighter ship. Unfortunately, not only does Platte Valley have the same security issues and drug problems as her previous facility (no one bats an eye when the metal detectors are set off, and kids returning from passes are smuggling drugs into the facility), it also has domineering staff members who seem to get enjoyment out of exerting their authority over youth and families alike.

My husband and I know better than anyone else how stubborn and defiant our daughter can be. I am certainly not disputing that. However, in the four years Mallory was in the custody of the Department of Human Services (DHS) and DYS, she has never been considered “combative” or “aggressive” by staff until recently at Platte Valley. In fact, we were always amazed by how compliant she was with facility staff since she never followed the rules at home.

Mallory was shuffled around a total of eight different facilities, and she was always well-liked by staff. She consistently earned various privilege levels for good behavior, including being able to work in the kitchen. She was praised by the kitchen staff at multiple facilities (most recently at Platte Valley) for being helpful and hard-working.

She never picked fights with anyone, and a few months ago, when she was assaulted by one of the other girls on her unit, she didn’t even fight back. The other girl was assaulting random girls, hoping to “catch new charges” so she would be transferred to the Weld County Jail next door (she was). At the time, Mallory was about to earn the behavior level that would allow her to go on family passes, and she didn’t want to jeopardize that by fighting back. I don’t think there are a lot of people who could maintain such self-control in that situation.

And yet, during the incident which was recently investigated by Weld County Human Services after Mallory filed a complaint with the Child Abuse Hotline, she was so “combative” and “aggressive” with staff that she had to be restrained by six staff members who took her down to the ground, handcuffed her, and carried her to her room where they then placed her in a leg wrap and a helmet.

Prior to this incident, Mallory had lost the pass privileges she had worked so hard to earn (before even being able to go on one) when she was written up by a staff member whom she insists made up details about her cussing at him in an incident report. When she appealed this decision to her unit supervisor, the unit supervisor responded, “It’s his word against yours,” and denied her appeal.

The only thing Mallory values almost as much as her freedom is fairness. When she feels she’s been treated unfairly by someone, she shuts down and doesn’t cooperate. Or, as she once told us when she was still living at home, she goes on strike. So, when staff told her she needed to switch rooms because she was on privilege restriction due to the incident report which she disputed, she refused. I understand how her stubbornness and defiance warranted a restraint. However, I believe the use of force, as she claims, was excessive.

According to the Weld County caseworker who handled her investigation, the video footage outside Mallory’s room shows that multiple staff members were in her room with her for 18 minutes after they carried her into her room. They might have been able to diffuse the situation simply by leaving her room and closing the door behind them, but instead, they continued to hold her down for 18 minutes and added insult to injury by putting her in a leg restraint and a helmet.

At our monthly team meeting at Platte Valley, my husband and I began to ask questions about the helmet and leg wrap that were used during the restraint in question. An assistant director who was present at the meeting, supposedly to answer our questions about the incident, insulted our intelligence by saying that Platte Valley did not have a helmet. We then learned that Mallory had not been physically examined by medical staff after either of two separate occasions during which she was restrained, and injuries she received as a result of the restraints were also never documented. In addition, staff did not notify us of the second restraint that occurred later that evening, nor did they notify us when they placed Mallory on suicide watch which they are required to do.

When we insisted that photographs be taken of bruises Mallory had received on her face and arms during the restraints and asked to see the helmet and leg wrap that were used, we were suddenly denied our regularly scheduled visit with our daughter following the meeting, and we were told to leave the facility. We informed the staff that we were not leaving until photos were taken of Mallory’s bruises which were already fading. Mallory’s therapist finally agreed to accompany her while photos were taken and then return to the room to show us the photos. Mallory’s client manager, who was curious about the helmet, left the room to try to locate it, saying she would also come back to the room to let us know what it looked like, since Platte Valley staff would not show it to us. When my husband and I were alone in the room, and Mallory’s therapist and client manager were both out of sight, Platte Valley staff came into the room and told us to leave again. We explained to them that we were waiting for our daughter’s professionals to return, but they didn’t care. They threatened to call law enforcement if we didn’t leave. They probably would have put us in helmets and leg restraints too, if they could have.

Ultimately, we left the room on our own, upset that we were being treated like criminals for inquiring about our child’s safety. Several staff members followed us out to the lobby, smirking as though this situation was amusing to them. I was in tears, not only because of the way we were treated, but because I had a personal understanding of what my daughter went through on a daily basis, and it broke my heart. She complained of staff constantly yelling at the youth, making them sit in silence for hours at a time. The girls’ unit was never allowed to go outside (not even during fire drills), and the kids were not allowed to have drinking cups or water bottles when they were locked in their rooms at night. Mallory had an outside art therapist who had brought her a sketch pad and colored pencils to use as a coping mechanism, but her unit supervisor would not let her have them. The last time I brought Mallory books, staff did not give them to her for several weeks, even after she asked for them. This, I feel, was punishment for the excessive use of force complaint as well as for our inquiring about it.

According to Mallory’s client manager, who saw the helmet used in Mallory’s restraint and even tried it on, its use is supposed to be phased out this month. So why was Platte Valley staff still using it in December, and especially on someone who has no history of aggression? When we spoke with the director of Platte Valley (who refused to apologize for the way we were treated by her staff), she told us she followed up with her assistant director whom she said had been misinformed about Platte Valley not having a helmet, but she offered no other explanation.

Because we were not allowed to see the helmet or leg wrap, I conducted an internet search for these items, at the suggestion of Mallory’s therapist. The only images I found were far worse than what I was picturing in my imagination and hopefully far worse than the actual devices used at Platte Valley. But because of Platte Valley’s lack of cooperation and transparency, these images from the Yell County Juvenile Detention Center in Danville, Arkansas demonstrating the WRAP, are the ones that will stick with me.

While Weld County Human Services was investigating Mallory’s excessive use of force complaint, she was confining herself to her room for most of the day because she didn’t trust the staff at Platte Valley. Quite frankly, I didn’t trust them either. The director, in particular, always evaded my questions, no matter how small, by citing some facility policy, HIPAA law, or Colorado statute that didn’t apply. She tried to convince me that I could not obtain the “physical response” report records from DYS by citing Colorado Revised Statutes 19-1-304(8)(b)(V) and 19-1-305 which actually contradicted her claims and supported my right as Mallory’s parent to access records related to a physical restraint or use of force. The director either didn’t read or didn’t understand the statutes herself, or maybe she thought I wouldn’t look them up or understand them. She was obviously not familiar with my background, nor did she know me very well.

I did obtain copies of the physical response reports from DYS records in which the phrase “unsanctioned technique” is repeated throughout multiple staff members’ accounts of the incident. I also have copies of the photos that were taken of Mallory’s bruises three days after the restraint. Conveniently for the staff involved, there are no cameras in the youth rooms. This potentially allows staff to do whatever they want to these kids while in their rooms, in this case, for 18 minutes. There is no video evidence as to whether or not the helmet and leg restraint were actually necessary. And as I have stated before, if there is no video evidence, there are no consequences.

With the investigation now complete, Weld County Human Services can only make recommendations as to how Platte Valley could have handled this situation differently. I had a conversation with the Weld County caseworker following his investigation, and after interviewing youth and staff and reviewing video footage of the unit outside Mallory’s room, these are his recommendations:

  1. Limit the number of staff members present while attempting verbal de-escalation techniques. The video showed roughly 25-30 staff members on the unit before Mallory was restrained (due to a shift change), which may have created a threatening environment, leading to the escalation of the situation
  2. At least one body camera should be worn by a supervisor involved in such incidents for transparency inside the youth rooms which have no video surveillance

Transparency is something that DYS and DHS lack considerably. While the Weld County caseworker conducting this investigation was initially sharing information about Mallory’s case with me freely, he has been ignoring my requests for a copy of his report for several weeks, as well as a request from Mallory herself. Hopefully he actually made these recommendations to Platte Valley, and hopefully Platte Valley will take them seriously. However, I question the legitimacy of this whole process which, much like everything else within DYS, wreaks of concealment.

The Youth Vaping Epidemic: Underlying Issues

This month, in light of increasing e-cigarette use among teenagers, my son’s weekly high school newsletter has been providing facts about the harmful effects of juuling, or vaping. As a parent of two teenagers, I have witnessed first-hand, the relationships among e-cigarettes, drug addiction, and mental health disorders. If your kids are juuling, there may be more serious underlying issues.

My kids, like most teenagers, seem to be under the impression that their parents were born full-grown adults who have never experienced peer pressure, bullying, depression, or anxiety. While these things have plagued teenagers since the beginning of time, I will admit that they do seem to be far more prevalent in my children’s generation. Kids today also seem far less able to cope with them and more likely to turn to e-cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs. I believe the added influence of technology is to blame.

While it’s hard to imagine life without technology now, I’m glad I grew up in a time without cell phones, the internet, and social media. There is a sense of self-sufficiency, confidence, and civility that comes from having to communicate with people face-to-face or having to find one’s way from point A to point B by looking at a map or asking someone for directions. Instead, our children lack communication skills, confidence in their abilities, and empathy for others. They also have great anxiety about doing anything for themselves. They hide behind superficial and often cruel text messages and social media posts. They avoid eye contact and real social interactions. They rely on the internet and GPS to do everything for them.

To cope with all of this, along with the usual pressures of school and the additional fear of school shootings, it’s no wonder teens turn to e-cigarettes for stress relief. The Juul, with its enticing flavors and resemblance to a USB drive, is particularly attractive to tech-savvy teens. It’s also more harmful than they realize. According to a Truth Initiative study, 63% of teens and young adults did not know that Juul pods always contain nicotine. In fact, the Truth Initiative states that the amount of nicotine in one Juul pod is equivalent to the amount of nicotine in a whole pack of cigarettes.

Kids who use e-cigarettes put themselves at risk for nicotine addiction as well as addiction to other drugs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) points out that prolonged e-cigarette use can cause other drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine to have a more pleasurable effect on a teen’s developing brain. NIDA also states that nicotine can have other negative effects on the brain such as attention and learning difficulties, as well as mood disorders and impulse control problems leading to self-harm or harm to others.

My daughter, who developed bipolar disorder as a teen, used e-cigarettes prior to using marijuana. She smoked marijuana prior to smoking and then injecting crystal meth and heroin. She would roll her eyes at me when I used the term “gateway drug” because she thought e-cigarettes and marijuana were harmless. According to a National Public Radio article, fewer teens believe marijuana is harmful to their health today than the mid-2000s. The article suggests that legalization of the drug may lead to this perception.

My state, which legalized marijuana in 2014, also fares far worse when it comes to e-cigarette use among teens. In Colorado, 26% of high school students used e-cigarettes in 2017 compared to 11.7% of high school students in the nation, according to Tobacco-Free Kids statistics. Colorado is also one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to the prevalence of mental illness, substance abuse, and access to care for youth, according to a 2018 report from Mental Health America which ranked Colorado almost dead last at 48th.

Because juuling can be an indicator of an underlying mental health issue like depression or anxiety and can lead to other substance abuse addictions, I’m proud of my son’s school for recognizing this growing problem and alerting parents and students to its dangers.

For more information about the harmful effects of juuling, visit the American Cancer Society.

A Colorado State of Mind: Youth in Crisis

I’ve lived in Colorado for over 18 years now, and while I love the Centennial State for its majestic beauty, abundant sunshine, and plentiful recreational opportunities, my picturesque state falls short when it comes to combating the mental health and substance abuse crisis we are currently facing.

Two years after beginning our fruitless search for mental health treatment for our daughter Mallory, who has bipolar I disorder and a substance abuse addiction, I began attending National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) support groups and classes. After sharing my feelings of hopelessness with the group, the facilitators, who had similar frustrating experiences finding adequate help for their children, acknowledged that Colorado was not the best state in which to raise a child with a mental illness.

According to a 2018 report from Mental Health America (MHA) which ranked all 50 states (plus the District of Columbia) based on the prevalence of mental illness, substance abuse, and access to care, Colorado ranked nearly last at 48th for youth, 40th for adults, and 43rd overall. The Colorado Health Institute also listed Colorado as the state with the 9th highest suicide rate in the nation in 2017.

One Colorado couple who had been battling their insurance company to obtain treatment for their severely depressed son only received approval a month after he took his own life at the age of 14. According to NAMI, suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in the U.S. among youth ages 10-14 and the 2nd leading cause of death in youth ages 15-24. In Colorado, the statistics are even worse. In a report from the Office of Suicide Prevention, suicide was listed as the number one cause of death among Colorado youth ages 10-24 in 2016. Why must we wait until it’s too late to get help for these kids?

In Mallory’s case, our insurance would not cover residential treatment even though we had a referral from a psychologist. Prior to that, we had sought help from our school district and were told by the director of an alternative school with mental health and substance abuse components that Mallory needed stabilization before she could attend. Despite being told she needed stabilization, we had been turned away from a psychiatric hospital because she hadn’t met their criteria for crisis stabilization. After being taken to another hospital from our home by the police, Mallory had also been discharged less than 24 hours later because she was again not considered an imminent danger to herself or others.

We had heard from several law enforcement officers and Department of Human Services (DHS) workers that if Mallory had criminal charges, more services would be available to us. It seems absurd to me that we have to wait until our kids start committing crimes before someone will help them. Wouldn’t it make more sense to be proactive and intervene before our kids are exposed to the criminal justice system, potentially preventing a lot crime in the process?

MHA stresses the importance of implementing Prevention and Early Intervention (PEI) programs in schools and communities that can assess mental health risk and intervene early. My daughter’s concerning behaviors began at her middle school. She received detentions and suspensions for her behaviors but never met with the school psychologist until her freshman year of high school and only after we had asked repeatedly. By that time, she was already involved in truancy court and diagnosed with bipolar disorder by an outside psychologist we had taken her to for testing.

Mallory’s middle school had only one psychologist for nearly 1,000 kids. Her high school had one psychologist for roughly 2,200 kids. Just as our schools need more school resource officers to protect them from mass shootings, they also need more mental health professionals to prevent them from ever occurring in the first place.

MHA points out that other consequences of failing to intervene early include suicide, incarceration, homelessness, and school drop-out. According to NAMI, 70 percent of the nearly two million youths arrested in the U.S. every year have a mental health condition. If these kids could receive the care they need when they need it, a lot fewer kids would be arrested.

One of Colorado’s biggest shortcomings when it comes to mental health treatment for kids like Mallory who frequently run away and eventually end up incarcerated, is the absence of secure residential treatment facilities. Because there are none, the state places habitual runaways with mental health disorders in “staff secure” (not locked) facilities from which they can easily run. These kids end up on the streets, putting themselves in danger of becoming victims of sex trafficking. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), one in seven runaways reported in 2017 “were likely victims of child sex trafficking,” and 88 percent of those “were in the care of social services when they went missing.” Too many of us parents have had to place our children’s lives in the hands of our states who have failed them.

A friend and former coworker who once had a family member in DHS custody advised me to get my daughter out of the system as soon as possible. Mallory was 15 at the time. This week we will be celebrating her 19th birthday at a state youth services center in a tiny, locked visitation room with a folding table and four plastic chairs. No cake. No candles. No presents. We’ve never been able to get her out of the system.

In five months, though, Mallory will finally be released from the Division of Youth Services (DYS) after serving the entire two years of a 0-2-year sentence. Four residential treatment facilities and five youth services (detention) centers later, she is in worse shape than the day she was placed in DHS custody. Less than a week after her first DHS placement, she was introduced to a life of homelessness, drug addiction, and victimization – a life she wants to return to when she is released.

Before DHS got involved and before our daughter had a criminal record, we tried for over a year to get help for her. We were denied coverage by our insurance company, and we were repeatedly turned away by hospitals and other treatment providers because she was either “not an imminent danger to herself or others,” or they didn’t know how to help her.

Colorado kids are in crisis, and we need to help them before it’s too late. We need to implement PEI programs in schools and communities to prevent and treat problems in their early stages, we need better insurance coverage for mental health and substance abuse issues, and we need better treatment options that don’t require our kids to have criminal charges or their parents to give up custody of their children. It’s time we protected the beautiful minds of our children who will one day inherit our beautiful state.

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.