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.

Unsafe Betty K. Marler Youth Services Center Shut Down

Just two weeks after writing my blog post, Sexual Abuse, Drugs, and Neglect: The Wrongs of Rite of Passage, the Betty K. Marler Youth Services Center (which was run by Rite of Passage) has been shut down. It took an alarming rooftop sexual scandal involving several girls for the state to finally come to the conclusion that the facility was unsafe and that the staff had no control.

My daughter had been at Betty Marler for a little over a year, and almost since day one I had been reporting staff negligence and misconduct as well as other safety issues to the Rite of Passage (ROP) administration at Betty Marler, to the Division of Youth Services (DYS), and to the Department of Human Services (DHS) through the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline (1-844-CO-4KIDS). The lack of action and concern for the well-being of the girls in their care was disturbing to say the least. After reporting over a dozen bruised bite marks on my daughter’s arms to multiple ROP staff members and supervisors, who responded with indifference, I reported the incident via the abuse and neglect hotline. After the DHS employee who reviewed my report decided not to investigate and would not return my calls for further explanation, I contacted Denver 7 News investigators. I thought it was time to shine a spotlight on all of ROP’s dirty little secrets, including negligent and sexually abusive staff, drug use with shared needles, and escapes.

Two weeks later, my daughter’s DYS client manager informed me that ROP would no longer be running Betty Marler, that the facility was being shut down, and that my daughter was being moved to a different location. When I spoke with my daughter that night, she was under the impression that the facility was being shut down because some of the girls had broken a sprinkler system and flooded three of the four units. It wasn’t until Denver 7 News Investigative Reporter Jace Larson showed me the state report that I learned the truth about the shutdown. In his story, Jace reveals that several girls climbed onto the roof of a building on the Betty Marler campus, took off their shirts, began making out and touching each other sexually, and then threatened to jump off the roof. He goes on to say that some of them later cut themselves with glass from a ceiling light they had broken.

Where was Betty Marler staff during all of this? Who knows? Maybe they were in a closet having sex with one of the girls in exchange for a few puffs of a vape pen, as this 9 News report details. Or maybe they just didn’t care. Well, I’m guessing they care now. Hopefully the next time a parent raises concerns about the safety of youth in a state facility, someone will listen and do something about it.

My daughter is at a new facility now which is run by the state rather than a private company like ROP. While I’m hopeful that she will be safer there, I know from experience that many of these facilities have a lot of the same problems. Unfortunately, many of the new laws which were meant to protect kids and treat them more humanely have made it more difficult for staff to discipline them when necessary and to maintain control of their facilities. Despite some of the negligent and poorly trained staff at Betty Marler, I feel the need to point out that there were a few respectable employees there who were trying to make a difference in these girls’ lives. Sadly, some of the rights given to kids as young as 15 (such as allowing them to make their own decisions about medication when they have a mental illness) create barriers to treatment.

Many of the kids in the system have serious mental health issues and are unable to advocate for themselves, or they don’t have family members who are willing to advocate for them. By the time they are committed to the Division of Youth Services, they have already been failed by the broken mental health and juvenile justice systems in Colorado. These systems shuffle them from one ineffective residential facility to another, which often get shut down due to lack of funding. Our kids need better mental health and substance abuse treatment options, and above all, they deserve to be safe. I will continue to advocate for their safety and for better services, hopefully bringing about some positive change in the process.

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. For some reason, 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. 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.