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Abused kids may mingle with delinquents at a privately run facility

Abused kids may mingle with delinquents at a privately run facility
Illustration by Jesse Lenz

Behind his glasses, Jack has a sweet face. It's the face of a kid who's been hurt by the very people who were supposed to protect him. A kid who's carefully creeping toward learning to trust adults and to believe that they won't manipulate him or abandon him like his parents did. Slowly, Jack is coming to realize that what happened isn't his fault.

Jack, who is sixteen, was removed from his home just after his twelfth birthday. The call was made by his mentally ill mom and domineering stepdad. Take our oldest son, they told child-welfare workers. He's the reason we're poor and down on our luck; he's the one who is mentally ill. Although Jack's stepdad never beat him, he demanded that Jack hurt himself, punishing the boy by making him hold a squatting position long after his thighs burned with pain. There was also emotional abuse, and Jack and his four younger siblings have recently hinted that they may have been sexually abused, too.

But Jack, whose name was changed for this story, isn't mentally ill. His only diagnosis, after more than four years of therapy, is post-traumatic stress disorder. Still, he's not like most sixteen-year-old boys. His attorney describes him as "pesky," the way a ten-year-old little brother might be pesky. His development has been stunted by trauma. For his sixteenth birthday, Jack asked for Matchbox cars.

What he wants most is a family, but that hasn't happened. Although his social workers don't have the heart to tell him, there's little chance that someone would adopt Jack at his age.

Instead, a new law passed in April allows Colorado counties to put physically and emotionally abused boys like Jack at a remote, privately run facility that houses a quarter of the state's committed juvenile delinquents: boys ages 14 to 21 who are guilty of crimes such as car theft, aggravated assault and vehicular homicide.

Ridge View Youth Services Center in Watkins was supposed to be Colorado's answer to its problem of too many delinquent teenagers and not enough room. But lately it's had more empty beds than full ones. Expanding the types of youth that can go to Ridge View will certainly fill some of them, but those in favor of the plan — including state lawmakers, county officials and employees of Rite of Passage, the for-profit organization that operates Ridge View — insist that it's not about making money, saving money or warehousing children. Instead, they praise Ridge View's unique approach, which combines academics and athletics in a fence-less environment that proponents say more closely resembles a prep school than a prison.

If opening Ridge View to non-criminal youth helps just one boy, they repeatedly say, it'd be worth it.

But child-welfare advocates are skeptical. They insist that the two types of youth don't belong together. At a place like Ridge View, which is designed for "high-risk" kids, someone like Jack is sure to become a pawn or a punching bag or a delinquent youth himself.

"My concern is, we're starting out youth deep in the juvenile-justice system before they've even committed a crime," says Kim Dvorchak, executive director of the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition. "It feels like commitment without trial."

"We are very concerned...about what message we would send to a young person who has been traumatized by abuse and neglect and then placed in a juvenile correctional facility where the focus is on changing the behavior of the offender," Carla Bennett, a volunteer lobbyist on juvenile-justice issues for the League of Women Voters of Colorado, told lawmakers debating the bill. "Will there be a subtle message, or maybe not so subtle, that the [dependent or neglected] youth was somehow responsible for his problems?"

Some lawmakers agreed that abused boys who hadn't committed crimes shouldn't be sent to Ridge View, even though these boys sometimes live in the same child-care facilities as juvenile offenders. They voted to expand access to Ridge View thinking that an amendment offered by bill sponsor Senator Nancy Spence prevented the abused boys from ever going there.

But Spence was mistaken when she told other lawmakers on the floor of the Senate that that is what her amendment would do, and the bill passed without any explicit protections for abused kids — only assurances from counties and Ridge View that they'd thoroughly screen boys to weed out the low-risk ones for whom Ridge View would be dangerous or damaging.

Counties and the Colorado Department of Human Services insisted that was all the protection boys like Jack would need.

*****

Spence admits that juvenile justice isn't her area of expertise. Instead, the Centennial Republican and former Cherry Creek school-board member has focused much of her fourteen-year legislative career on education. It was through those connections that she first visited Ridge View, which is in her Senate district.

"I'd never been to a residential placement for juvenile offenders before," Spence says, "and I was impressed with the fact that it was unlocked."

Like many Ridge View supporters, she most often refers to the facility as a charter school, which is partly true. The academic part of Ridge View is a Denver Public Schools charter school called Ridge View Academy. An innovative program that began in 2001, the same year Ridge View opened, it allows committed boys to earn a high-school diploma from DPS, and its test scores rank it fourth out of Denver's sixteen alternative high schools. Spence once told fellow lawmakers that Ridge View is "rather like a big college campus."

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16 comments
Homobama
Homobama

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Anne Annette Davis
Anne Annette Davis like.author.displayName 1 Like

As a parent, as a educator and nurse and member of this community. This is a mistake, do not co-mingle these juveniles, it is not right.

Johnathansnorsky
Johnathansnorsky like.author.displayName 1 Like

I was one of those kids. we as a community need to stand up and tell everyone that weve had enough because its these kids who fill prison beds in the future

Rose VanGorder
Rose VanGorder like.author.displayName 1 Like

Foster kids run away for a reason.

Johnathansnorsky
Johnathansnorsky

like i did

I'm an artist named Johnathan who was born on December 24, 1986 to an illegal alien father from the Soviet Union who was sent to prison for murder, and a mentally unstable mother who abused me daily and eventually abandoned me in Colorado at the age of 12. When I wasn’t in orphanages, group homes, and foster care, I was a homeless child on the streets who, subsequently, at the young age of 17, made the regrettable mistake of burglarizing a gun shop. Having never attended art school, I always drew to escape the horrors of my so called life, but honed and mastered the skill of drawing during the seven and a half years I was incarcerated. Therefore I can effortlessly, and expressively, create art in an array of mediums encompassing color pencil, chalk and charcoal, pen and ink, engraving, and oil painting. I was released at the age of 24 and, as a free man; I'm pushing for a change in my community by working with the public school system to guide broken children down the right path and publically speaking about my inspirational, but heartbreaking, life story and art. My art has been displayed at the Consortium 816 art gallery in Denver’s downtown Santa Fe Art District and can be found in private collections across America. My next art show is between june 1 and july31 at eden lounge on 31st and downing in the rino arts district north of downtown denver

What i do today

The Tyro Program mentors at risk youth and exposes them to art, music, and culture in the attempt to inspire hope and dreams in these impoverished children. I grew up in extreme poverty and abuse. My life was a nightmare. At times I felt as if life wasn't worth living and I came close to giving up several times, because no one cared to foster love in my heart. As a man, I'm still that little lonely boy inside, hurting, yearning for love and acceptance. So I know kids won't just grow up and be OK. And sure, there are people who've had rough lives that didn't need help, but not everyone is that strong, I wasn't. Out of the vast majority of the cases of child poverty, abuse, and abandonment, those broken children grow up to become the broken adults who will rob, rape, and murder innocent people. I'm a living example of this. Those people, that were like me, fill our prisons today, and maybe that kid who ditches school will fill a bed in the future. Therefore, we, as a community, must act. With just a little inspiration a kids life could drastically be altered for the better. Instead of looking up to drug dealers and thugs, I want to help these kids see that life has so many opportunities and that they can succeed if you work hard. They aren't told that enough and just give up on their dreams at the first obstacle they approach. The program works like this: I work with the homeless liaisons that councils the most unfortunate kids in our public school system. They contact me and I arrange for the children to become a "Tyro", which is the medieval Latin word for squire or apprentice, to myself or other artists. These Tyro's will get a crash course of art history, learn to draw, paint, sculpt, visit art galleries, art shows, operas, ballets, musicals and museums with real artists. Then, when the artists, or myself, have a art show, the Tyro's will be involved in setting up the show, getting firsthand experience of the "behind the scenes" of a real art show... Then they'll attend the show and get to be involved in something far larger than they could ever imagine... And that will make them dream... That's my goal. I've pledged 10% of all my art sales to this program. I hope everyone realizes how serious the need is to have mentors in our community and at the least pledge to encourage that local bad kid, and even take the chance to invite them to a barbecue, get to "Know" them, and you'll understand and fall in love with them. *20% of the funds collected support the management and staff liaisons who plan events and escort the children. *80% of funds collected go to the actual events the children attend: art shows, art galleries, art tutorials, art museums, etc. and also for art supplies. Hopefully you'll want to fight this battle with me.

Never stop dreaming and Always love, Johnathan

Jwarriner
Jwarriner

Let's look at the psychology of this. We take a kid who is so emotionally damaged that he blames himself for the abuse he suffered and then we say, "by the way, we're sending you to jail." Do we really think that doesn't reinforce the very things that lead to so many of their problems. This is barbaric. We used to do crap like this 100 years ago. There should be no reason to send abused children to jail. This is simply a matter of the private prison system wanting another avenue to fill beds and be paid for it with tax dollars. I'm ashamed that Colorado voted these morons into office. I'm even more ashamed that we voted for the idiots who feel they were duped because they didn't even take the time to read what they were voting for. Thank goodness we have term limitations. Though public executions would be more gratifying.

Maryellen
Maryellen

This bill was a case of good intentions gone awry. But legislators with those good intentions can "tweak" the language and make sure the wrong kids don't get mis-placed.I've visited Ridge View many times and have been very impressed with the facilities. I also had a family friend's son placed there. Ridge View saved his life. He was headed straight for prison. At Ridge View he got an education, became a long distance runner and his entire attitude changed. Five years later he is a successful, functioning adult.Ridge View is an excellent facility. Let's make sure it has the proper clientele. Beyond that, I trust that Westword will be fair and show all sides to this issue.

The Jenn of all Jenns
The Jenn of all Jenns

One of the scariest phrases in the English language: "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

Marmie
Marmie

Let me tell you about the jerks of judges that cause abused children to end up as delinquents and drug addicts: After a court hearing in 1983 regarding the abuse of my 2 boys by their bio-dad, the judge had this to say: Only one case of abuse has been proven, which does not warrant the father being denied his privledge of part custody. My younger, 32-year-old son, died of heroin overdose on April 25. He was my best baby, so sweet, until age 4. After each visit to his father he told me horrendous after horrendous story since age 2!! The continuing emotional and physical abuse became his comfort zone. He continued trying to quell the pain, but it only brought on more of the pain that was actually his comfort zone! Sad, how loving he was but so confused, still trying to make his dad okay...in his mind. Now in heaven as spirit he finally has resolved the truth and is happy, which could never be on this earth! We must all forgive his father, the mother of all abusers!!

Marmie
Marmie

Why would our legislators put abused children in a detention facility with abusive children????? Go figure. That's our legal system leaders!!!!

calhounp
calhounp

marmie: i'd like to publish this comment in the print edition that goes to press tonight -- ideally with your full name. let me know if that's okay at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

CCJRC
CCJRC

There is a something very Dickensian about the whole thing...

calhounp
calhounp

I would like to publish some of these comments in our print edition, ideally with your full name/town. If that's okay, e-mail me at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

Aaron Futrell
Aaron Futrell

As a former youth corrections officer at a branch of Rite of Passage I could not agree more with this article Ms. Asmar has hit the nail right on the coffin. The Youth Corrections System is messed up and needs to be fixed I understand that Ms. Spence thought that she was providing a Band -Aid to kids who just want to be accepted but all she really did was make the wound larger. A kids life is worth more than the few dollars that Rite of Passage is collecting to fill a bed that should be saved for a real criminal. The city of Denver just passed the urban camping ban what's next making being a foster kid illegal to justify placing them in the D.O.C system?

guest
guest

As a past foster parent that dealt with troubled youth. I have seen prosecutors and Judges knowingly allow fake charges be brought so that a child could be moved from dependency and neglect to delinquency. Of course at the time it was to get better support for the juvenile since 10 years ago all the money was being given to delinquency. However, after that everything they do like running away or skipping school is now a charge against them. Eventually they get some jerk of a judge that either doesn't know or doesn't care that the only real charge was fake and sentences them to jail till they turn 18. I saw this very thing happen in Weld County. What ever is done to these kids at home is nothing compared to what is done to them by the system. So this legislator's belief that the county is going to do what is right for these kids is nieve and severely misplaced.

Guest
Guest

It's pretty fucked up when an 18 year old kid has more perspective then an elected representative. But the most asinine aspect is that Nancy Spence can't figure out how to amend her proposal correctly? What a dumb fucking broad. So, now she doesn't care because she faith in the government? What a fucking dipshit.....this bitch is the goverment and she doesn't have the competence to ammend her bill correctly but I'm supposed to trust that the government has some sort of competence when it comes to placing children? I'm so fucking glad that as a resident of Centennial I get to pay this dumb bitch's salary.

 
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