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Throw Away the Key

Boulder County slams the door on a group of juvenile homes that won't lock theirs.

It's 11 a.m., and two of the girls living in the treatment center in north Boulder are sleeping. The other four are still in their pajamas, lounging on couches in the living room and laughing hysterically as they recite lines from Sugar and Spice, the movie they saw last night about high school cheerleaders turned robbers. Two women in charge of supervising the girls look on with amusement. "We should put on a comedy show with you," one of them says.

That's all the encouragement the girls need before running off to the kitchen and returning with carrots stuck in their nostrils, ears and mouths. Repeating their favorite movie phrases this way is much more fun. They let out the kind of laughter that makes their sides hurt and their eyes water. One girl cracks herself up so much that she collapses on the floor.

These four girls -- whose identities have been protected because they are juveniles -- range in age from thirteen to sixteen, though each looks older and more hardened than her years. They're here either because they've committed a crime and were ordered to live in the home by a judge, or because they were abused and neglected by their parents and sent here for their own protection. Most have been here for at least a month. In that time, they've learned to function as a family, living by a set of rules, performing chores, eating dinner together, arguing among themselves and leaning on each other. Some of the girls have found in this home what they were lacking in their own: safety, compassion, and the assurance that no matter how bad their lives have been, they're not alone.

For a residential treatment center, the place is surprisingly laid-back. (According to state statutes, an RTC is a home that provides long-term care and treatment, 24 hours a day, for five or more children or teens; approximately 1,500 kids in Colorado are currently living in RTCs.) The girls can leave, unattended, for a few hours at a time, but they have to earn their freedom by proving that they can be trusted. It's a freedom they haven't had at most of the places they've been sent in the past.

The system works on an honor code; there are no locks on the doors. And the staff isn't allowed to restrain the girls if they cause problems or try to escape. That freedom is what the girls love about the home.

It's also what Boulder County officials hate about it.

For all the playfulness at the home on this July morning, there's a profound sense of sadness hanging overhead. The girls learned just a day earlier that the home will close at the end of August.

It is shutting down because the Boulder County court system gradually stopped referring anyone to Attention Homes, the private nonprofit that runs the girls' home as well as a similar home for boys in south Boulder and a youth shelter that closed in February.

The reason, county officials say, is that Attention Homes won't change to suit their wishes.

Over the last ten years, the county has moved toward a philosophy of treating troubled kids in their own homes with a variety of intensive social services. Only the most difficult are sent to RTCs. Since Attention Homes has rejected adolescents with extreme problems, however, it is no longer needed, the county reasons.

Attention Homes tried to stay in business by accepting more kids from other counties, but the county reacted by cutting the nonprofit's funding -- about $30,000 a year -- saying it couldn't support the organization if it wasn't serving Boulder County kids. Furthermore, county officials claim, since Attention Homes has refused to become a "staff-secure" facility -- one in which the doors temporarily lock if someone tries to open them without permission and where staff members are allowed to restrain kids if they try to escape -- some of the kids have run away.

Employees of Attention Homes maintain that the county sent them kids who needed psychiatric help, not the kind of treatment they could provide. They also say that IMPACT, the county entity responsible for referring kids for out-of-home placement, is driven only by the bottom line. IMPACT (Integrated Managed Partnership for Adolescent and Child Community Treatment) was created four years ago after the state legislature approved an experimental child-welfare reform system in which Boulder County has taken part. The system is designed to save the state money by letting counties handle their own child-welfare budgets.

IMPACT and Attention Homes are currently in mediation to figure out what to do with the three homes; the county reportedly wants to buy the youth shelter and lease it out to another RTC that would operate it as a staff-secure facility. Because they're in mediation, staff and board members for both IMPACT and Attention Homes have agreed not to discuss the situation, but employees who have already been laid off as part of the home closures have plenty to say.

"They were asking us to entirely change our philosophy," says Kate Goode, a three-year employee of Attention Homes who acted as operations director until she was laid off this summer. "That's a lot to ask for $30,000 a year."

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