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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."

Much of the facility does feel like a school, albeit one where the kids all have the same haircuts, wear the same clothes and never ditch class — because they can't. Ridge View offers academic classes, in addition to vocational training in trades such as welding and masonry. Athletics are a key part of the program, as well: Boys must run three miles a day and are encouraged to play on one of Ridge View's fourteen sports teams, which compete against area high schools. Everyone eats together in a dining hall that looks like an ordinary school cafeteria. They sleep on bunk beds under identical gray blankets in doorless rooms. Plants are allowed; posters are not.

Ridge View has room for 500 boys. Its construction was authorized at a time when the pendulum of juvenile justice was swinging more toward punishment. In 1993, the legislature passed a battery of laws aimed at curbing youth crime in the wake of Denver's so-called summer of violence. The laws came with money to improve Colorado's youth prisons, but by 1997, projections showed there still weren't enough beds. So lawmakers voted to create a 500-bed facility — the biggest in the state — on the site of the former Lowry bombing range, in eastern Arapahoe County. It specified that the facility "shall follow an academic correctional model, providing educational, vocational and positive developmental programming" and pledged $51 million to make it a reality.

But the state didn't want to operate the facility; instead, the Department of Human Services chose Rite of Passage, a Nevada-based provider of programs for at-risk youth that started in the '80s with wilderness boot camps, to design, build and run it. The state Division of Youth Corrections would pay Rite of Passage a daily rate to send boys to Ridge View. That rate is lower than what it costs to send boys to the state's locked facilities, including the 161-bed Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center in Golden.

The law specified that Ridge View could only accept boys who'd been labeled as delinquents by a judge and then sentenced — or "committed," as the state refers to it — to the Division of Youth Corrections; the average sentence is zero to two years.

Boys who are committed are often repeat offenders. First-time juvenile delinquents, on the other hand, are usually given probation and sent home or, if the judge determines that it is unsafe or impossible for them to go home, placed in the custody of the county department of human services, which can house them at a residential juvenile facility like the one where Jack lives.

For years, Ridge View's population held steady at more than 400 boys. "That's when it ran the best," says Jerry Adamek, a former head of the state Division of Youth Corrections who now works as a senior consultant for Rite of Passage. The more boys were at Ridge View, the more money Rite of Passage made, and the more sports, trade classes, activities and programs it could offer. But due to decreasing youth crime rates and a movement to connect troubled youth to services before they ever commit a crime, the entire DYC population is shrinking, says John Gomez, the division's current director. Today, Ridge View reports that it has just 215 boys.

Spence says that when she heard that Ridge View was half-full, "I thought, 'What a waste.' It's a good thing there aren't as many kids in the system as there used to be, but to underuse a facility that serves so many kids so well is a shame."

A longtime friend of Jefferson County Department of Human Services director Lynn Johnson, Spence knew that two counties in particular — Jefferson and Arapahoe — were "anxious" to be able to place kids at Ridge View. So in January, she introduced a bill to do just that. Senate Bill 99 sought to amend the law that created Ridge View to allow the facility to also house "juveniles who are in the temporary custody of a county department of social services or who are in need of out-of-home placement." Spence thought the bill was short and sweet, a simple, helpful change.

 

She found a House sponsor in Representative Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat who jokes that the only thing she and Spence have in common is their first names. A former schoolteacher who also favors education issues, Todd serves on Ridge View's community advisory board, a volunteer body that raises funds for scholarships and oversees a mentoring program. She joined after attending a robotics tournament in which Ridge View was competing. (The team, she says, was "dynamite.") She, too, thinks expanding access to Ridge View is a good idea. "This is bringing in a different population that has not gone deep into breaking the law but are lost kids," Todd says.

Kent Moe, the program-development manager at Ridge View, got involved as well, serving as the public face of Ridge View at the State Capitol. He says he didn't expect any opposition the bill. "Knowing what I know about the campus and about how we'd carry it out, I know that it's good for kids and it's good for families," he says.

*****

But not everyone agreed. Once child advocates caught wind of the bill, several lined up to oppose it. John Riley worked for the Division of Youth Corrections for thirty years, running Colorado's first boot camp for delinquents. Now retired, he works for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. He doesn't think abused and neglected kids belong in a program like Ridge View. "It doesn't matter how highly structured it is," he told lawmakers. "It doesn't matter how many 'Yes, sir's or 'No, ma'am's or how they look or what uniforms you put them in. In the end, are they going to succeed? The truth is, if you haven't dealt with their initial problems, there's no guarantee of success."

Bonnie Saltzman, an attorney who specializes in child and family issues, didn't pull any punches. "Ridge View is a beautiful facility," she said at a hearing, "but it is not a boarding school." Abused kids are "going to see it as punishment because it's a correctional facility," Saltzman tells Westword.

Advocates also take issue with the way Ridge View measures its success. As at other juvenile prisons, that determination is made by whether its youth go on to commit more crimes — a measure advocates argue is irrelevant to abused and neglected kids. State reports show that Ridge View is on par with the state's other options. The latest report, published in January, shows that in 2009-2010, 36 percent of Ridge View youth committed another crime after finishing their sentence, compared to 33 percent of youth placed at other state and contract facilities.

Ridge View rationalizes its recidivism rate by explaining that half of its youth are committed for property crimes like theft, and property offenders are at a higher risk to commit another crime than other kinds of offenders.

Linda Weinerman, the executive director of the Colorado Office of the Child's Representative, which provides advocates — guardians ad litem — to children involved in the court system, also opposed the bill. "When you consider placing the most vulnerable of your citizens in this hard-core type of facility, one of two things is going to happen: That kid is going to be victimized or that kid is going to become a hard-core kid," she says. At a hearing, she called Ridge View "not the type of place you want to send a fourteen-year-old boy who has done nothing except having the misfortune to be born into a family that is unable to take care of his needs."

Bill supporters insisted those fears were unfounded. No county, they said, would send fragile abused kids to Ridge View. Plus, they added, most residential child-care facilities, or RCCFs, like the one Jack lives in, already mix kids who have committed crimes with those who haven't. Julie Krow, the director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families under the Department of Human Services, testified that 30 of Colorado's 33 RCCFs have both adjudicated and non-adjudicated kids. The makeup is about half and half, she said. "We've seen it work well," she told lawmakers.

County representatives also testified to their plans. "We're not talking about placing children who are solely in the child protection system as the result of being abused and neglected," said Angela Lytle, manager of children, adult and family services for Arapahoe County. Rather, the county would look to place at Ridge View youth whose behavior is threatening — either to themselves or to the community.

Ridge View's Moe pointed out that both Jefferson and Arapahoe counties and Rite of Passage use risk assessments to weed out low-risk youth who are likely to get worse if they enter a facility like Ridge View. "Senate Bill 99 doesn't propose to mix youth," he testified. "It proposes to mix placing agencies, but the same youth. We're a great program for kids who are out of control with their parents, who are out of control with their families, who are at risk to commit future crimes and who have strengths we can build upon but they need a little discipline."

 

Some Ridge View boys also testified. They wore khakis, neckties and maroon letterman jackets, which boys at Ridge View can earn for good behavior. "I really didn't go to school when I was free," said a boy named Steven. "I was always ditching school, hanging out with people I wasn't supposed to hang out with. Then I came to (Ridge View) and I started going to school every day.... I found out I was smart."

Lawmakers asked if the kids at Ridge View were in fact hardened criminals. Opponents had testified about fights and shanks being found there. In one high-profile case, a sixteen-year-old Ridge View boy named Josh Churchwell walked away from a wrestling match that Ridge View was competing in at East High in January 2011. His dead body was found three months later in a suitcase near Ruby Hill Park, nearly naked and curled in a fetal position. His adoptive parents told the media that Josh's roommates at Ridge View made shanks and then practiced with them on their mattresses. Josh turned them in, and, subsequently, another boy stabbed him with a pencil. The adoptive parents said they were afraid Josh had become a target at Ridge View.

But the Ridge View boys who testified said the kids there are not hard-core. "There isn't necessarily a lot of bad kids there," a boy named Cody said. "I have a friend who was picked up because he was drunk one night and he decided to break into a building and go look at stars on the top of the roof, and that ended up getting him committed."

*****

The bill passed both houses of the legislature and was signed into law on April 12 by Governor John Hickenlooper. But afterward, some people found out they'd been duped.

At stakeholder meetings, bill opponents had asked Spence to add language to the bill specifying that counties could only send adjudicated youth to Ridge View, those kids who had committed crimes but weren't committed themselves. They wanted abused and neglected kids left alone — or, barring that, they asked for an additional step in the process of placing an abused kid at Ridge View: a hearing before a judge to determine whether it was an appropriate placement.

So Spence drew up an amendment that struck the phrase "or who are in need of out-of-home placement" so that the bill simply read that Ridge View could house juveniles "in the tempory custody of a county department of social services." When she offered it on the Senate floor in February, she told fellow lawmakers that it restricted access to adjudicated boys only. Many senators liked the sound of that.

"Thank you for bringing this amendment," said Senator Jeanne Nicholson, a Black Hawk Democrat. "It addresses the concerns that I had. I think we need to move in the direction of out-of-home placement into homes as much as possible. And when we can't, it's not wise to commingle children who have been abused and neglected with the children at Ridge View. I think it is not in their best interest."

But it turns out that Spence was mistaken. The wording she used did nothing to keep abused and neglected kids out of Ridge View. Abused and neglected boys are still technically "in the temporary custody of" the counties. And although Spence says now that she didn't understand the complexity of the words, she says, "It doesn't matter to me, because of the trust I have that only appropriate kids will get sent to Ridge View."

Weinerman and Saltzman were angry. "We got played," says Saltzman.

And she's not the only one who feels that way. Senator Joyce Foster, a Denver Democrat, says she took Spence at her word and, as a result, voted for something she doesn't actually support. "I assumed when I was voting for it...that there was an amendment Senator Spence said she put on it that wouldn't commingle the children," she says. "But weeks later, someone said to me, 'By the way, that's not the case.' It was my fault for not actually doing my own research on it. I should have asked more questions. I should sometimes be a little less trusting.... That's the frustration I'm feeling right now."

But Ridge View plans to proceed with caution. Moe is adamant that the facility won't accept kids who wind up in the system "through no fault of their own." In most cases, that means abused and neglected youth who've committed no crimes, though Moe admits there might be those one or two kids that could benefit from the structure.

 

"I don't know if I would accept that kid next week, just because people would say, 'See?'" Moe says about the law's opponents. "But over time, being able to explain that, yes, this kid is in the system through a fault of his own because he is willfully menacing his mother, because he beat up his little brother but his mom simply chose not to press charges against him — I think we'd be able to help that kid."

In order to place boys at Ridge View, counties must contract with the facility — just as they would with any other RCCF. Moe says Ridge View is currently in talks with the two counties that pushed for the bill the hardest: Arapahoe and Jefferson. He hopes the contracts will be signed by the end of May.

Lytle, of Arapahoe County, says she doesn't have a waiting list of kids she'd like to place at Ridge View. But she adds that once the contracts are set, "I'm sure one or two might come through here pretty quickly that we'd want to have the ability to consider Ridge View."

Johnson, of Jefferson County, doesn't have a waiting list, either. "If we use it in a year, great," she says. "If we don't, then no child was right for Ridge View." As for what types of youth fit the criteria, Johnson says she'd prefer to start with delinquent youth in the county's custody. "But if there is a child who is dependent and neglected that this fit for, I wouldn't rule it out," she says, adding, "I don't get walls, borders, boundaries and 'This system says A' and 'This system says B.' It doesn't matter which system a kid is in."

Not all counties are as gung-ho. Douglas and El Paso counties supported the bill, but neither is sure they'll place kids at Ridge View. "We felt like counties should have the option," says Douglas County human services director Barbara Drake.

Others, including Denver, Adams and Weld, were neutral toward the proposal, while Boulder and Larimer opposed it outright. "It isn't that we're opposed to Rite of Passage. We're actually against all institutional care," says Jim Drendel, the Larimer County division manager for children, youth and families. "We always use the easiest out, and institutional care is the easiest out."

Instead, Denver, Boulder and Larimer counties, among others, have been working to reduce the number of kids in group homes and RCCFs, collectivaly known as "congregate care." At Hickenlooper's request, the Annie E. Casey Foundation recently completed an analysis that shows that Colorado overuses congregate care. It recommended that the state place fewer youths in institutions.

*****

At eighteen, David is a smart dresser who wears flashy earrings in both ears and always irons his shirt before going out. He lives with the family of his girlfriend, whom he met through a cousin. He has a GED but no job, though he recently applied to work at Walmart, Big Lots, Dollar Tree and Hobby Lobby. If he lands a position, it'll be his first.

David, whose name has also been changed for this story, spent his teens in juvie.

His problems started when he was a child. David's mother struggled with her own issues and often neglected her kids. "She was always out of the house with her crack-head friends or her meth-head friends," David explains, so an elder brother became the parent, sometimes even cooking mac and cheese for his younger siblings.

When David was ten, the family's situation came to the attention of the county human services department, and David and two older brothers were taken from their mother.

At first they all lived with the same foster family. The mom and dad were nice, David recalls; they got along so well with David's oldest brother, the responsible one, that they ended up adopting him. But David was the opposite. He stole things. He tried to run away. Once, he threw a chair at a wall, damaging both.

So David was sent somewhere else, though he has a hard time remembering where. Over the next five years, he cycled through more than thirty placements — a combination of foster families, group homes and residential child-care facilities — many of which he tried to run away from, straight to his family, especially his mom, if he could find her.

David also spent time in detention facilities, which are like juvenile jailhouses. In five years, he picked up four convictions: two for assault, one for property destruction, and one for motor vehicle theft. That one happened when he was fifteen and living in a child-care facility in northeast Colorado. He and two other boys made a break for it, and after walking all night, they wound up in a small town, where they found a van with the keys in the ignition. They stole it, but the kid who was driving crashed.

 

That year, in the spring of 2008, a judge committed David to the Division of Youth Corrections. After an evaluation, he was sentenced to two years at Ridge View.

Now, as he reflects back on that time, David sees positives and negatives. He hated orientation, the period during which newly arrived boys get up at 4:20 a.m. and are given twenty seconds to get dressed. Most days, he says, consisted of intense exercise followed by intense boredom. New "student athletes," as they're called at Ridge View, spend that time learning the rules of the facility and, more important to the staff, learning to respect authority. Orientation involves sitting silently for hours, marching in lines and doing pushups if you mess up, David says.

But David says that kind of discipline was good for him in the long run. Once he finished orientation, he liked the school at Ridge View — "I got smarter," he says — though he failed to earn his high-school diploma. (He later got his GED.) And he liked the food. "I thought I was at Country Buffet," he says. He also played on the basketball team.

David floundered after being released in August 2010, however. Faced with newfound freedom, he reverted to his old ways, acting up at school and running away from placements. He was kicked out of the coed RCCF where he went after Ridge View for messing around with a girl, and served out the rest of his sentence in locked detention.

David doesn't think it's a good idea to put non-adjudicated kids — kids like his older brothers — at Ridge View, either. They probably would have followed the rules better than he did, but he wouldn't have wanted them sent to such a "high-risk place."

"They don't need someone telling them what to do," he says. What they need is families.

Senator Nancy Spence sponsored a bill to expand access to Ridge View.
Anthony Camera

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