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 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.