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A consultant newly hired to give advice on reforming Colorado’s beleaguered youth corrections system says the system is “running fairly well,” but a Rocky Mountain PBS News analysis found both staff and youth in the system are suffering injuries and the state is footing the medical bills.
Last year, the state paid more than $1 million to cover workers’ compensation claims for injuries suffered by staff members who were “struck or injured” by a fellow worker, patient, or other person while working within the state’s youth corrections system. Since 2013, the payouts totaled nearly $5 million.
RMPBS also found that last year, the state Division of Youth Corrections documented 48 incidents when youth suffered injuries that required follow-up medical treatment as a result of physical management by staff.
According to a state spokesperson, Laura Morsch-Babu, the cost to treat specific youth injuries is not tracked, but “the vast majority of the medical care was able to (be) handled by staff at the facilities' medical clinics.”
“Once you lay a hand on a child, especially a traumatized child, the chances of that escalating into something physical where kids and staff get hurt just dramatically goes up,” said Rebecca Wallace, the staff attorney for the ACLU of Colorado.
COLORADO CHILD SAFETY COALITION: DYC HAS "CULTURE OF VIOLENCE"
Colorado’s DYC has been under scrutiny after a critical report was released in February by the Colorado Child Safety Coalition, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, Disability Law Colorado, the Colorado State Public Defender, and the Colorado Juvenile Defender Center.
The assessment, called Bound & Broken, relied on narratives from 21 young offenders, their private records, and thousands of pages of internal reports.
Accompanied by graphic photos of rug burns on children’s faces and bruises on their arms as a result of restraint techniques or “physical management” by DYC staff, the report alleges the youth corrections system is “plagued by punitive practices that cause physical and emotional harm to the young people in its care.”
RMPBS independently interviewed both youth and staff from the DYC who were not included in the report. Formerly incarcerated youth interviewed by RMPBS said they experienced both violence and rehabilitation while they were in the system.
“I do think that being there offered me a lot of good things I was able to use...and a lot of those people up there are still really strong supports for me and still only want the best for me,” said Dante Smalley, 21, who served several years in youth corrections.
But there were certain times when he felt that staff did not follow protocol and “decided to take their anger out” on him.
Samantha Hall, 21, a former offender who said she served time in youth corrections for theft-related charges, said she experienced restraint techniques that - at times - she believes, went too far.
“I’ve dealt with three or more staff holding me down, putting their knee to my head when I was on the ground,” she said. “(Some guards are) trying to boss the kids around and acting as if they’re in the military and you’re in a boot camp.”
The story of one staff member underscores the complexity of staff and youth injuries.
Richard Brinker, who has worked for the state for nearly 30 years, recently suffered head and shoulder injuries when he tried to stop an 18-year-old youth offender from attacking a younger boy at Zebulon Pike Youth Detention Center.
Brinker said he believes the injuries caused him to have a cerebellar stroke a few days later.
Brinker said some of the techniques staff use to restrain youth are not ideal, but neither is the behavior they’re designed to contain.
One example that was specifically cited in the Bound & Broken report is the WRAP, a device that restrains young offenders by wrapping their legs together until they become immobile.
“You can’t lean forward or back. It puts you in an ‘L’ position, and they handcuff your hands to your back. They put a spit mask over your face and then a helmet,” Smalley said.
The Division of Youth Corrections reported using the WRAP 226 times at 10 facilities in 2016.
Brinker said the WRAP is a “last alternative” to prevent someone from getting hurt.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “But I don’t want anybody killed,” he said.
The Bound & Broken report’s authors have been pushing for Colorado to adopt a program that resembles the “Missouri Approach,” a therapeutic system which focuses on building long-term relationships between youth and staff and shuns isolation rooms and physical restraints, like the WRAP.
Mark Steward, founder and director of the Missouri Youth Services Institute, a non-profit agency hired to consult with the state, said his organization does not support its use.
A representative for SafeRestraints, the company that designs and sells the WRAP, insists the restraint tool is helpful in emergency situations. “The WRAP is used as a last resort when a physical confrontation is inevitable….There is no better safer solution than the WRAP,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
In late April, Reggie Bicha, the executive director of the Department of Human Services, the agency that oversees the Division of Youth Corrections, issued a letter to members of the state legislature indicating that DYC would completely stop using the WRAP by July 2018. Staff will stop using the WRAP on children between the ages of 10 and 13 by July of this year, according to the letter.
“We will continue to look at all things that we do if we find opportunities or interventions to do better we will certainly look into that,” said Anders Jacobson, the director of DYC, in an interview prior to the release of Bicha's letter. “It’s important to know that the WRAP is only a small part of our physical management continuum, and it’s not always used.”
Colorado’s Division of Youth Corrections paid approximately $6,000 to consult with Steward’s organization, known as MYSI. The institute offers support to juvenile justice officials who are considering a more rehabilitative, therapeutic approach to their youth corrections programs.
“I was expecting to see a system that was broken,” said Steward, who read the Bound & Broken report before visiting Golden’s secure youth facility, Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center, in early April.
“It was not the kind of place that I expected to see from the standpoint of violence and staff not interacting with youth – because they were,” he added.
The current system isn’t perfect, however, said Steward, who recently delivered his assessment of the Division of Youth Corrections to the state.
It felt like a correctional institution rather than a rehabilitative center, he said.
“There is certainly room for improvement,” he said.
Steward’s assessment recommends many changes, among them:
- reducing the staff to student ratio to 1:5 or 1:6
- reviewing the use of placing youth in orange t-shirts when they have disciplinary issues to prevent “shame” within the youth population
- exploring restraint methods that do not inflict pain.
DYC DIRECTOR ON REPORT: NOT A “FAIR PORTRAYAL”
Jacobson, who took the helm of DYC in December 2016, is still reviewing the MYSI assessment.
Meanwhile, he said the state agrees with many of the changes recommended in the Bound & Broken report - like steering away from painful physical compliance techniques. However, he believes the report was not a fair portrayal of how DYC operates.
“I do not believe that the Division of Youth Corrections’ facilities are plagued with violence,” he argued. “We do not abuse kids. Our staff are dedicated Colorado citizens that take on this cause of working with at risk youth.”
Staff members receive 32 hours of training in motivational interviewing and verbal de-escalation techniques when they are first hired, according to the state. There is additional training each year.
Jacobson pointed out that only 21 kids were included in the Bound & Broken report when more than 5,000 juveniles are processed into the ten state-run facilities each year.
DYC EDUCATIONAL SUCCESS
Many of the youth, he said, have productive experiences within the system.
Jacobson said the state offers daily school and vocational classes, athletic activities and opportunities for kids to earn special privileges.
According to state records, 256 of the 283 youth who were eligible to achieve a GED or a high school diploma between 2016 and 2017 accomplished the goal while detained in the youth corrections.
“Our end goal is to ensure that they are productive citizens in Colorado, and we’re passionate about that,” said Jacobson.
Dante Smalley said he learned skills within the system that help him today.
“I do believe that if I didn’t go to (youth corrections), I wouldn’t have pursued an education,” Smalley said. “ I wouldn’t have gotten a job, and to be honest, I don’t know if I’d still be alive.”
Jacobson is focusing on the prospect of increasing the staff at several facilities as a top priority.
Recently, DYC asked the Joint Budget Committee for an additional 65 staff members to better align with the successful 1:5 or 1:6 staff to children ratio that exists in the Missouri system.
Jacobson said an increase in staffing and a reduction in the youth population at the embattled Spring Creek Youth Services Center facility last fall resulted in a “dramatic decline in fights and assaults.”