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

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

A Vote for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services in Our Schools

At a time in our history when our flags seem to fly at half-mast more often than not, our kids are referring to themselves as “the mass shooting generation,” and suicide rates and drug overdoses are at an all-time high, we have an opportunity to make a difference in our kids’ lives at the polls by voting for candidates and ballot measures that make the current mental health and opioid crisis a priority.

As a Jefferson County, Colorado resident, I support ballot measures 5A and 5B which propose to improve student safety by upgrading school security and providing additional mental health services to include suicide prevention and substance abuse counseling. These measures will also provide funding to expand academic and early education programs, renovate dilapidated buildings, and offer competitive teacher salaries to attract more qualified teachers to our district.

Many of our nation’s schools are recognizing the need for better security measures and mental health and substance abuse services by putting these issues on the ballot. It’s up to us to support our schools in their effort to provide a safer environment for our children who have even begun advocating for themselves this year following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.

According to an American Psychological Association (APA) survey, 72% of today’s youth, also referred to as Generation Z, say that the possibility of a mass shooting occurring in their school is a major source of stress. The APA states that this generation is also much more likely to report that they have fair or poor mental health compared to other generations. In addition, they are more likely to have a mental health diagnosis such as anxiety or depression. According to the most recent report from the Office of Suicide Prevention in Colorado, suicide is the leading cause of death among youth ages 10-24 in my state. APA reports that nearly half of this generation also says they know someone with a drug or alcohol problem, but 35% said they would not know how to get help for a friend or family member with this issue.

It’s time to tell our kids that their cries for help have been heard and that we will invest in their well-being. Jeffco Public Schools, home to Columbine High School, has not seen a school funding measure passed since 2012. I’m voting for this year’s ballot measures, 5A and 5B, because they are about more than just reducing classroom sizes and increasing teacher salaries. While those things are important, 5A and 5B also address the mental health needs and safety of our students which can no longer be ignored. Our kids can’t afford for 5A and 5B not to pass.

The Youth Juuling 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.

Sexual Abuse, Drugs, and Neglect: The Wrongs of Rite of Passage

A little over a year ago, my daughter, who has bipolar I disorder with psychotic features, was committed to the Division of Youth Corrections (now the Division of Youth Services). She was sent there after being shuffled from one residential facility after another for repeatedly running away and placing herself in dangerous situations. She was addicted to crystal meth and heroin and was living on the streets of Denver with a 40-year-old homeless man who used her in various ways to support his own drug habit. While we were relieved when Mallory was finally placed in a secure facility because she was at least off the streets, we soon found out that life at the Betty K. Marler Youth Services Center was only slightly safer than living on the streets.

The entire time Mallory has been at Betty Marler, which is run by Rite of Passage (ROP), she has had access to drugs, she has had continuous contact with her perpetrator who walks free, she has been subjected to staff members who have sexually abused other girls, she has received injuries from another girl which the staff has refused to address, and she has also been allowed to taper herself off her antipsychotic medication, which has led to a noticeable decline in her mental health. The staff likes to point out that, because of Colorado law, they can’t force her to take her medication. So, until the law changes, we have to watch our daughter’s mental health deteriorate. However, we don’t have to stand by and keep silent about ROP’s negligence.

Though these girls are doing time for various crimes they have committed, a lot of them have been victimized by older men who have introduced them to drugs and have trafficked them or coerced them into committing other crimes for them. One parent, whose frustration I know all too well, says of the Betty K, Marler Youth Services Center in a Google review, “Daughter’s locked up ex and petifile [sic] are free to walk the streets!” Four times, Mallory’s 40-year-old “boyfriend” was with her when she was located by the police. Every time, he was free to go, and now she is incarcerated, supposedly to keep her safe from him and from her drug-addicted lifestyle.

Well, she still has access to both her boyfriend and drugs at Betty Marler. Staff members continue to allow her to call this man despite a no-contact order and my multiple attempts to put a stop to this. Drugs are plentiful in the facility. At one point, there was a needle being passed around and, in the middle of a typing class, one girl even showed another girl how to shoot up, and no one noticed. It took staff weeks to find the needle when it was brought to their attention.

They refuse to bring in drug dogs to locate drugs and paraphernalia because they don’t want the girls to feel like criminals. Despite the girls smuggling drugs back into the facility via their body cavities after returning from a pass (girls who are getting ready to transition to home or a step-down facility are able to go on day passes prior to their release), ROP does not conduct cavity searches. Drugs also come in through the mail which is not checked thoroughly. Drugs and other contraband could easily walk right through the front door with visitors also. The only security measure they have is a metal detector at the front gate which they share with the Mount View Youth Services Center. I set this detector off more often than not, and no one bothers to pat me down. On visitation days, Betty Marler staff sometimes wands visitors during check-in, but sometimes they apparently just carry the wand for show. It wouldn’t be very difficult to bring a weapon into the facility, and it would be quite easy to bring in drugs. The girls are supposed to be strip searched after visits, but this is done sporadically and not very thoroughly.

The staff is under-trained and inconsistent when it comes to following rules and procedures, and some staff members have even taken advantage of their positions, abusing the girls in their care. Recently, a male staff member was fired and charged for having sex with one of the girls. He was only fired because he was caught on camera with the girl, going into a restricted area, like a bathroom or a closet. A few months prior to that, two girls reported that they had witnessed a female staff member engaging in an inappropriate physical relationship with one of the other girls. After an investigation, the staff member was only moved to a new unit because there was no video evidence to support the claims. The staff member resigned shortly thereafter. If every act of sexual abuse had to be proven by video evidence, very few people would ever be charged.

Staff at Betty Marler also turns a blind eye to physical injuries girls receive from other girls. Mallory currently has 13 bite marks from another girl which I have reported to four different staff members who refuse to even examine her. My daughter insists that it’s not a big deal because she received the bites during horseplay. When I asked the clinical director why no one has bothered to look at my daughter’s arms or tried to find out who bit her, she responded that Mallory “doesn’t feel abused.” My daughter also didn’t feel abused when her 40-year-old boyfriend traded her for meth. She’s not able to advocate for herself, especially given her current mental state. Betty Marler is a licensed child care facility, not unlike other day care centers which would be held responsible if they allowed someone’s child to be bitten 13 times.

I have addressed all of these issues on more than one occasion with various administrators at ROP, and the only response they ever seem to have is “Colorado law says…” or “Our policy states…” In the year that our daughter has been there, the facility has had two different program directors, two different clinical directors, two of the five therapeutic managers have resigned, and multiple unit staff members have quit or been fired, some of them as a result of the sexual abuse charges and allegations. The facility currently has a temporary program director because the most recent program director was allegedly fired when it was discovered that she had a child neglect charge that somehow was missed in a background check.

I think the public would also be shocked to know that some of these girls, who are in a secure facility because they are supposedly the most serious female juvenile offenders in the state, frequently go on off-site outings into the community. They go on weekly hikes at various parks in Jefferson County which is often followed by lunch at a restaurant. They have been to the Boondocks amusement park in Northglenn. Some of them even get to attend a prom at the Elks Lodge in Idaho Springs with boys from other detention facilities. While they have two or three staff members with them, depending on how many girls are on an outing, they are not in sight of a staff member the whole time. Just over a week ago, two girls from Betty Marler were able to escape while on a hike at South Valley Park in Jefferson County.

Why was this not in the news? Why was there nothing in the news about the male staff member who was recently fired and charged for having sex with one of the girls? Because ROP doesn’t want anyone to know about it. Well, I want people to know about it. I’m speaking up because my daughter has another nine months left at Betty Marler, and I fear for her safety and her well-being.

The Incarceration of Mental Illness: Mallory’s Story

When my daughter was 14, she confided in me that she was hearing voices. As her mental health began to rapidly deteriorate, I never imagined that getting help for Mallory would be so difficult. There were many barriers to obtaining mental health treatment for my daughter, including the scarcity of effective services, limited insurance coverage, a lack of criminal charges, failing to meet the criteria for being a danger to herself or others, and even Mallory herself. For Mallory and many others struggling with mental illness, these roadblocks to treatment would eventually contribute to her incarceration.

As a proactive parent, it was frustrating for me to watch my daughter’s condition decline in a system that doesn’t begin to offer help until it’s often too late. Even more frustrating was realizing that her situation was only worsened by the services that were eventually offered to us through the Department of Human Services (DHS) and by a broken juvenile justice system that appears to contribute to the epidemic of human trafficking by cycling at-risk youth through ineffective, unsecured residential facilities from which they repeatedly run away. It took three years of runaway reports, sleepless nights, jail visits, court hearings, and unsuccessful DHS placements before my husband and I were finally able to convince a magistrate to put Mallory somewhere safe. Unfortunately, the safest place (at least safer than living on the streets) in the state of Colorado for our mentally ill daughter was the secure facility where she was placed by the Division of Youth Corrections (now called the Division of Youth Services) over a year ago. We had exhausted all other options.

Mallory’s path to incarceration began shortly after she started hearing voices. She had been diagnosed with an unspecified psychotic disorder and was prescribed the antipsychotic drug, Abilify, by a psychiatrist at the Arapahoe Douglas Mental Health Network (now AllHealth Network). While the medication helped quiet the voices somewhat, Mallory’s behavior was out of control. At the beginning of her freshman year of high school, she started defying authority, skipping school, and smoking marijuana. From there, her behaviors escalated to engaging in risky sexual activity, meeting adults she met online, and running away from home. These behaviors, we later learned, were the result of manic episodes.

By the time Mallory was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder with psychotic features and oppositional defiant disorder at the age of 15, she had run away from home twice and was involved in truancy court for excessive school absences. It was clear that a traditional school environment was not working for her. When our school district informed us of an alternative credit retrieval program that had mental health and substance abuse components, we were hopeful that it would be a good fit. Unfortunately, after the intake interview, the director had concerns about Mallory’s psychosis and thought she needed stabilization before she could attend. This was dismaying because she had already been turned away from Highlands Behavioral Health System for inpatient crisis stabilization because she was not considered a danger to herself or others. On another occasion, after being taken from our home to the Parker Adventist Hospital by the police, she was released less than 24 hours later for the same reason.

The psychologist who diagnosed Mallory had recommended residential treatment, or intense outpatient treatment as an alternate option. Though we had what most people would probably consider a decent health insurance plan, residential care, costing several thousand dollars a month, was not covered by our insurance. Intense outpatient treatment was only partially covered by our insurance, but it was a more affordable option, so we enrolled Mallory in the intense day treatment program at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora. We had heard good things about the program, and again, we were hopeful that she would get the help she needed. She might have, if she hadn’t been kicked out of the program after only a few days for refusing to comply with their dress code. Oppositional defiant disorder (which was one of the reasons Mallory was attending the program in the first place) is characterized by actively defying or refusing requests by authority figures. Though Children’s Hospital Colorado lists, on their website, oppositional defiant disorder as one of the conditions they treat, they did not know how to handle a child who wouldn’t wear appropriate clothing and refused to change into scrubs. Mallory was discharged prematurely. We felt like no one was willing or able to help her.

When Mallory was released from Children’s Hospital, an emergency court hearing was held to decide what to do next. A guardian ad litem (GAL) had been appointed by the presiding magistrate to represent Mallory’s best interests. Because Mallory wouldn’t agree to a home safety plan that day, her GAL recommended that she be removed from our home and placed at The Sanctuary at Shiloh House, a short-term youth shelter in Thornton. This was quite possibly the worst decision anyone has ever made for our child, and it was certainly not in her best interest. Four days after she was placed at The Sanctuary, Mallory walked right out the front door with another girl who introduced her to the streets of Denver. No one at The Sanctuary bothered to follow them. For two weeks, we didn’t know if our daughter was dead or alive. Then the girls were found in Oklahoma with two men who had picked them up in Denver. It was a parent’s worst nightmare. Until our nightmares eventually got worse.

Once a child has been assigned a GAL and a DHS caseworker and is placed into the system, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to get him or her out. Mallory would spend the next two years alternating between residential treatment facilities (Excelsior Youth Center, Arapahoe House, Southern Peaks) and life on the streets. Each time she ran, she would be on the streets for longer periods of time, and each time she was located by the police, she was in worse shape.

When Mallory was finally incarcerated, at the age of 17, for violating the terms of her probation, she was addicted to crystal meth and heroin and had been living on the streets for months with a 40-year-old homeless, drug-addicted man. Prior to that, we had begged the court, DHS, and Mallory’s GAL to place her in a secure facility to protect her from her homeless, drug addicted lifestyle and from those who preyed upon her. We were told that there were no secure treatment facilities in Colorado. The only secure facilities for girls, her GAL had said, were for violent offenders, and Mallory didn’t have any criminal charges at the time.

Her homeless lifestyle did eventually lead to criminal charges for misdemeanor theft, identity theft, criminal impersonation, and forgery. She had been issued a ticket for shoplifting at a discount store and had shown a fake ID assuming someone else’s identity. Despite our objections, the Arapahoe County District Attorney’s Office offered Mallory a plea deal, and she was given probation for only the misdemeanor theft charge. All other charges were dropped. When Mallory ran for the seventh time, violating the terms of her probation, her team had nothing left to recommend but the Division of Youth Corrections (DYC). Mallory was sentenced to 0-2 years, and DYC placed her in a secure facility due to her run history.

We have slept better at night for the past year at least knowing where Mallory is, but this is only a temporary solution to a permanent problem. In less than a year, Mallory will be back in the community facing the same challenges as an adult. While the mental health and addiction crisis in Colorado is now more severe, there are even fewer mental health and substance abuse services available for youth and adults. Both the Excelsior Youth Center and Arapahoe House (the largest treatment provider in Colorado for youths and adults with substance abuse issues) have closed their doors due to lack of funding.

In a time of frequent mass shootings and drug overdoses, we can’t afford to leave mental illness and addiction untreated. We need additional, affordable, and more effective mental health and substance abuse treatment options for youth and adults in the future, or we will no doubt see more people suffering from mental illness incarcerated for committing crimes we might have been able to prevent had they received proper treatment.