When Jose was three, he watched his father tie a rope around his mother's neck and attach it to the back of a Ford F-150. His father then drove off, dragging his mother behind and leaving Jose alone on the sidewalk in front of the family's house. Jose's mother spent two weeks in the hospital after that, where doctors had to wire-scrub her entire back to remove the asphalt and remaining skin before conducting elaborate reconstructive surgery. She still has the scars. Then Jose's father was sent to prison for seventeen years for murdering a man, and it was just Jose and his mom.
Not for long, though. His mother soon had two more boys, and when Jose was seven, she moved them all into the house of a man named Brad. Brad abused Jose's mother, too, screaming at her and hitting her, once even knocking out some of her teeth. He abused Jose as well, throwing stuff at him and hitting him with a belt whenever he squabbled with his little brothers. Jose would escape and wander the streets. Finally, a bowling alley where he showed up a few times begging for food called social services. Jose was eight years old.
"They came to my mom's restaurant," Jose recalls. "Then they asked her where my brothers were. She told them, and they collected all three of us and took us to a facility in Adams County."
Lost and Found
And so began Jose's life in the system, a seemingly never-ending trek from foster home to group home to detention and residential-treatment facilities. Since 1998, Jose has lived in more than twenty places.
"I'm a runner," he says with a grin. "Always have been. I get sick and tired of being told what to do, and I'll want to see my family, so I'll just run."
But not every new placement was a result of Jose's tendency to flee. There was the home in Aurora that gave him up after his grandmother died and he started talking suicide. There was the foster family in Centennial who moved away and couldn't afford to take him. There were the houses where he was abused. And then there were all the places he ran from just to run, a short-lived series of residences stretching from Boulder to Colorado Springs, some of them rehabilitative, others placements with normal families. And every time Jose ran, it was another strike in his file, strikes that tended to magnify other charges, like when he got busted for selling weed at the fountain behind the Museum of Nature & Science in May 2005, and the cops discovered that he had an outstanding warrant for running.
Soon after that, his mother's rights to her son were terminated legally because she'd neglected her boys, and Jose wound up at the Aspen Living Center, an independent-living program. While there, he attended Westminster High School, where he played varsity defensive tackle. But he got into a gang fight during the season and had to quit the football team and move to another facility. He ran again and was picked up for a drunken altercation on a #31 bus. After Jose bounced between a few more placements, Jose's parole officer sent him to Lost and Found, a Christian youth residential-treatment facility. Jose has been living at Lost and Found's facility, in Morrison, just past Tiny Town, since the beginning of the year. He's never tried to run. "The first few months I felt the urges, but I don't feel that way anymore," he says.
One reason is that Lost and Found gives him occasional weekend passes to visit cousins or his brother living in a Denver foster home. But another big reason is that at Lost and Found, Jose has learned to think before he acts. He tries to remember what his grandma told him: to walk away from trouble, to make better choices, to live a better life than some of his family, to turn out different.
"If all goes according to plan, I'll be getting out of here in July or August and be able to go back to school again," Jose says. "I worry about falling back into some of my old traps, but I think I can walk away from that. I'm able to talk to people now. I can be more open about certain things. I feel like I have things to look forward to. Basically, I feel like I'm just now learning how to be a normal kid."
Before, he never got the chance. "In Jose's case, he's been shuffled around the system so long, every time he got moved, he would get all stirred up and become volatile," explains Terry Rogers, Lost and Found's residential director. "And a lot of the moves were not his fault. One program closed on him, his mom abandoned him; half the things that happened to this kid are not of his doing. We've been helping him get some clarity on that. There are still pieces of his behavior that he needs to look at, but he's understanding that he is not to blame for everything. That's where a lot of his hope is coming from. He's seeing that he doesn't just have to be a victim of the system, that he can actually get out of it."
The eight-acre Lost and Found facility in Morrison currently houses eighteen boys between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. They spend their days taking specialized, Colorado Department of Education-approved classes, doing chores, going to counseling, playing baseball and basketball, and occasionally indulging in some good-behavior-earned free time, which recently consisted of watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Some are sent there through the Colorado Department of Human Services and assorted counties' social services departments, some through the Colorado Department of Youth Corrections, others through direct, private referrals. And they come with every sort of problem imaginable — from the Montbello gangbanger neglected by his parents who wound up selling crack and butterfly knives, to the well-to-do white kid whose first memory is of being sexually abused by his neighbor, and who then repeated the behavior a few years later and was quickly labeled a sex offender. Though generally reluctant to participate in treatment at first, with time and patience, most of the kids at Lost and Found come to view it as a way to break the cycle.
"We provide a therapeutic, healing community where kids can learn to interact with other kids appropriately, often for the first time in their lives," Rogers says. "By living in a healthy community where there are adult mentors and role models, they can learn in a different way. We have a highly trained staff, but it's not rocket science; it's just about learning healthy relationships."
Rogers says that Lost and Found's motto — "Hope, healing, a place to grow" — pretty well sums up what goes on there. But unlike the hundreds of kids who have passed through the program since it started 27 years ago, Lost and Found itself is having trouble finding a place to grow. Last year the nonprofit leased a 115-acre former Christian campground in Evergreen, where it wants to move both its Morrison boys' facility and a girls' facility that's now in Arvada. But some very vocal residents of Clear Creek County insist that the property is no place for the program — or the kids who've found a home at Lost and Found.
Harl Hargett, executive director of Lost and Found, views his work as God's calling. "Hargett, a former 'hippie' and drug addict, had emerged from the 70-80s culture via the power of the Holy Spirit at age 30," the program's website explains. "On fire and looking for a way to minister (by the hand of God), Harl met the Board President of Lost and Found, Inc., who convinced him to 'come up and see Bob's hope for teens.'" Bob was Bob Lynch, a former alcoholic turned Christian who'd been called to establish a place where drug-addicted teenagers could turn their lives around. Lynch's vision started with a few houses in Denver in the late 1970s, but soon expanded to the Morrison facility when it came on the market in 1979. The next year, Lynch was working on converting a geodesic dome on the property into a house for girls when he slipped and fell. He died from injuries sustained in the accident, and Hargett carried on Lynch's vision.
"I came on board at the time to try and see if the ministry could be salvaged after Bob's death," Hargett says. "I've been here ever since."
In the 27 years that Hargett has been with Lost and Found, the organization has expanded from a modest center for a handful of troubled teens to a full-fledged nonprofit with 160 employees and two facilities catering to the needs of more than thirty children. Lost and Found offers a family-counseling center, a child-placement agency, an independent-living program and a slew of other services.
"They're a great group," says Skip Barber, executive director of the Colorado Association of Family and Children's Agencies. "They're a quality treatment organization, and they have had great leadership over the past twenty-something years. I think they strive for the best interest of the kids and are constantly expanding the program to meet the needs of the population they've been working with."
But while those needs continue to grow, Lost and Found's budget has not.
Back in 1994, the Colorado Department of Human Services began accessing Medicaid to help pay for residential psychiatric treatment for kids in the custody of local social-service agencies. Medicaid covered about half the total cost of this care from '94 until the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services began to raise some questions about the practice in 2005.
"Initially, no one was certain what it was they were fishing for," Barber remembers. "We thought they were suggesting that we make some minor modifications to the program."
But instead, the Medicaid investigation determined that for eleven years, Colorado had been improperly billing for services that should not be covered by Medicaid funds at all, and ordered that all referrals to facilities such as Lost and Found cease.
"Our response was that we've been doing this for a dozen years — why now?" says Barber. "CMS's response was that they never looked that closely at it and that it was probably never legal in the first place. They decided they were changing the rules, and that was pretty much that. It sent a shock wave through the community."
Since July 2006, when the Medicaid money was officially shut off, there has been a 15 percent decline in youth residential-treatment placements in Colorado. Several facilities, including Family Pathways in Idaho Springs and Wingshadow in Fort Collins, have been forced to close their doors, and the ones that have stayed open have had to drastically cut expenditures while looking for alternative sources of funding.
In June 2005, when the writing was already scribbled clearly on the wall, Hargett started working on a plan to ensure Lost and Found's survival. He would combine the boys' and girls' facilities into one property, then take advantage of "economies of scale" while growing that single facility. When a Lost and Found board member told Hargett that the Singing River Ranch, a sprawling campground at the end of Upper Bear Creek Road in Evergreen, might be available, Hargett jumped at the opportunity. Glen West, the owner of the property, liked what Lost and Found was doing and agreed to a three-year, interest-free lease, with the ultimate goal of Lost and Found buying the property for a total of $3,680,000.
"We always wanted to sell it to another Christian ministry so that it would continue to be used as we had," says West. "We checked out Lost and Found and found that they were a good organization. So I was happy to lease the property to them."
For Lost and Found, the Singing River Ranch deal seemed too good to be true. And as they quickly learned at a community meeting announcing their new facility, it was.
The back mud room/office of Kevin and Mary Semcken's mountain home off Upper Bear Creek Road serves as the unofficial headquarters for www.stoplostandfound.com, a site promoted by two yellow-and-blue signs along the entrance to the property where the Semckens have lived for five years. A few steps away from a living room with stunning views of snowcapped peaks, a desk holds stacks and stacks of papers: photocopies of legal documents, wastewater discharge permits, letters from Clear Creek County residents and officials voicing their disapproval of Lost and Found's proposed move to Singing River Ranch. Mary Semcken estimates that she spends up to six hours a day working to stop Lost and Found from becoming her neighbor.
"The first public notice that came out, I went to my mailbox, and I opened up a letter from the county saying that there was going to be a hearing at Singing River Ranch, and I couldn't believe it," she remembers. "They said they wanted to put in a school, a church, housing — and it's three generations of housing, because they wanted to put in a daycare center, because a lot of these kids have kids — and they wanted to house the kids' parents, coming-and-going dysfunctional families up and down the creek...The whole town went nuts."
Hargett acknowledges that his initial plans for the new facility may have been a bit elaborate, since the county's zoning and planning commission encouraged Lost and Found to include everything it might ever do with the property. But he didn't have time to explain that before the whole town went nuts.
Last June, Lost and Found scheduled an open house at Singing River Ranch for what Hargett viewed as a meet-and-greet for the neighboring community. But the real greeting was outside the property. "At the turnoff of the main Upper Bear Creek Road to Singing River," he remembers, "there were a bunch of little kids holding signs saying things like 'Stop Lost and Found, They're Going to Kill Us,' 'Let Us Live' and 'Don't Let Rapists Into the Neighborhood.' There had to be five or six really ugly, potent signs. We drove through that and got to the meeting, which started out reasonably cordial but quickly turned real vehement."
Some residents made inflammatory comments about how Lost and Found had kids who'd commit rape, torture animals and set things on fire, Hargett says. Others lambasted West for dealing with a commercial entity, albeit a non-profit one. Hargett remembers feeling outgunned, having not expected such a vehement response.
The Semckens have a very different memory of that meeting. They say that Hargett and Rogers waltzed into Singing River Ranch like they owned the place, and told the neighbors there was no way they could be stopped. "When they first met everybody, they said, 'We want to let you know this is what we are doing,'" Kevin Semcken remembers. "And they said, 'We have taken litigation all the way to the Supreme Court in the past and won.' Almost as a warning not to challenge them."
Mary Semcken was particularly alarmed by Hargett's statements. "You just can't come in and say, 'I'm putting my treatment facility here. I'm a meth addict; I don't think right,'" she says. "Which is what I think about him, that he has a thinking problem. And I think that Terry Rogers, who stood up there and said, 'You know, when I was young, I came back here to camp, and I loved it so much, and I can't wait to get back here,' it's B.S. He's going to be living there. He's going to be retiring there. This is him setting himself up on his retirement plan."
A few days after the meeting, a co-worker told Hargett about www.stoplostandfound.com.
"A bunch of us developed that website to share with each other all of this information," Mary Semcken explains. "It's critically important to us that we communicate the facts, the documents, the rulings. It's a way for all of the concerned residents to stay up to speed."
Hargett objected to some of the material on the site, particularly the descriptions of the types of children housed at Lost and Found, and he asked the Semckens to remove it. When they refused, he sued them for slander. "Defendant's specific intent in these publications on his web site it to promote hysteria in the community of Upper Bear Creek," the complaint reads. "Convincing the neighborhood that plaintiff will bring crime, 'fire, death, blood or gore' to the Upper Bear Creek community."
But the Semckens stand by their site. "Google 'attachment disorder' and watch how many times 'blood' and 'gore' come up," says Kevin Semcken.
"When we were served with the papers, we took them to several attorney groups," Mary Semcken continues. Those lawyers told her that the suit was what's known as a SLAPP suit, a tool to silence critics, and "a smokescreen for the real issue," she says, "which is the easement."
Legal access to Singing River Ranch is through a private easement, and that easement is owned by the Semckens. When Clear Creek County granted the easement to the property in 1923, it was for "ingress and egress for farm/ranching activities and for residential use." Although Lost and Found's use isn't a match, neither was West's campground, nor the campground that was there for thirty years before that. But the easement wasn't the only problem. The property is also zoned Mountain Residential-1 usage, which technically means that only one residence is allowed. The Singing River Ranch camp predated the county's zoning regulations.
"It's my understanding that the camp has been there since before the adoption of our county zoning regulations in 1964," explains Fred Rollenhagen, planning director for Clear Creek County. "We would have called it legal non-conforming use; it was allowed to just continue as it always has."
For Lost and Found to operate there, though, it would have to get the property rezoned. "We had no idea that the zoning issue was going to get so complicated," Hargett says. "We knew that the property had been used for a Christian camp and that it had a legal non-conforming on it already. Our assumption was that would give us operating power to go right to work, and then we would go to zoning and get it zoned to speed. Obviously, that was not the case."
In November, the Clear Creek County Board of Commissioners voted not to extend the legal non-conforming use of the property, which meant that any future uses proposed for Singing River Ranch would have to conform to mountain residential regulations. Lost and Found immediately appealed the decision.
That appeal is still pending, but the litigation continues to fly. Last September, attorneys for a handful of Clear Creek County residents, including the Semckens, filed a complaint against Lost and Found, citing misuse of the easement, the zoning dispute and Lost and Found's disregard for county zoning requirements. While that case is still pending, a hearing on the slander suit is scheduled for this month.
"What these people are trying to do is to make us out to be the bad guys by saying we are against the kids, we are against religion," explains Kevin Semcken. "What we are against is putting anything in place that is not allowed to be there. The location right there is not right for Lost and Found's purposes. It's a dead-end; it's an area where there are mountain lions; it's a fire hazard; they would pollute Upper Bear Creek. There are so many issues going on, and the county just couldn't support them back there; we couldn't support the police protection, we couldn't support the ambulatory care. Should the residents be concerned about the kids? The answer is no. You shouldn't be concerned about the kids if the proper infrastructure is in place to take care of them, to keep them from lighting fires, to keep them from running away. But it's not."
But a different kind of concern about the kids runs through the stack of court documents devoted to this case.
"I did not build my house here in the middle of this quiet, beautiful land so that someone could move in troubled kids and families. I am afraid," reads one letter from a neighbor.
"The entire population of 'troubled youths' could be at my home via a very short hike," begins another. "Do I now need to put bars on my doors and windows? Do I need to have a loaded handguns in my home to protect my life and property? These junior criminals could burn down our forest (and possibly our homes) in a heartbeat. A blackened forest would demolish the value of our homes. Do my neighbors (who are even closer to the proposed facility) with small children need to worry about sexual predators lurking a short distance away?"
Don Krueger, the sheriff of Clear Creek County, weighed in with his own letter to the Clear Creek County Planning Commission: "When I first heard of the proposal, I contacted the Law Enforcement Agencies where this company's other facilities are located and was quite alarmed at the call volume requiring law enforcement response. When I asked officials from these agencies for advice, they stated, 'Don't let it reside in your jurisdiction.' Aside from the above, it is obvious that that location is too far from any emergency response personnel. We are concerned that in the area specified, most of the year weather could be life-threatening to those that choose to leave the facility without permission, and with nowhere else to go, we feel this will result in burglary, home invasion or vehicle theft issue on those occasions due to the fact there is nowhere else to go...Clear Creek County already has similar facilities with in its boundaries and we do not feel it is anyone's best interest to turn Clear Creek County into a penal colony."
But having the Morrison facility hasn't been a problem for Jefferson County, says Dale Wizieck, deputy with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, who serves as the liaison between Lost and Found and the neighbors. "As far as the call load from Lost and Found, it was no different than any other resident in the area," he says. "Just like any other resident, sometimes we would have a week where there were a lot of calls, sometimes we wouldn't hear from them for a month or two."
In the fifteen years that he's monitored the area, Wizieck continues, he can't recall a single occurrence that spilled out into the neighborhood around Lost and Found. All of the calls involved incidents at the facility — a facility much closer to neighboring residences than the Clear Creek County facility would be.
"The kids at Lost and Found are very well monitored," he says. "I can imagine people's apprehension — anybody would be apprehensive — but I don't see them as being a threat or a danger to any community in which they are placed."
"Lost and Found has functioned responsibly and safely as the finest neighbor the community could want," adds Larry Hobbs, who has lived down the road from the Morrison facility since it opened and is now Lost and Found's attorney. "My kids rode the school bus with them before they had their own school. They have been in my home, they have cut wood in my forest, they have shoveled snow for me. They have been very helpful, and they would do that for anybody. A 27-year record of good citizenship ought to amount to enough to put the fear and hatred in Upper Bear Creek to rest, but they pay no attention to that."
The cost of the litigation with neighbors is bleeding Lost and Found's budget. And there are other legal drains, too. Harry Elder, a real-estate developer in Evergreen, has filed suit, claiming that he'd entered into an agreement that would make him the next-in-line owner of the property should Lost and Found fail to receive its rezoning, and that the time has come to make good on that deal.
While that action is pending, Lost and Found can't raise money for its project. "It renders the property completely unmarketable — for any financing or donations, too — until the suit is resolved, because the property is in dispute," explains Hobbs.
"We're paying the lease for the property at Singing River while not being able to use the facility," says Hargett. "Meanwhile, we're running the Turkey Creek facility, we're running the Arvada facility, we've got the Medicaid cutbacks hanging over our heads still, I've got a balloon payment due to Glen West in December, and I can't even finance a campaign, because no one wants to touch us right now because of all our legal problems."
And that includes Clear Creek County officials. Last November, Lost and Found asked the county health department to inspect the property so that the program could get a state license to operate a residential child-care facility there, but the county refused.
"The health inspection related to a residential child-care facility application," explains Bob Loeffler, attorney for Clear Creek County. "If it were zoned for such a thing right now, we would go inspect it. But it's not zoned for such a thing, so we will not. This is not a dispute; it's simply not zoned right. We would do the same thing with another facility not zoned correctly."
Because Clear Creek would not do the inspection, the Colorado Department of Human Services took the unusual step of conducting the inspection itself. "I have never experienced it with a zoning dispute before," says Dana Andrews, licensing administrator for the department's Division of Child Care. "It's unusual to me, but in a small county, sometimes everything in the government is interconnected."
Until it hears back on its zoning appeal, Lost and Found is lost. Hargett has tinkered and re-tinkered with the zoning application, fine-tuning it to deal with the ever-surfacing concerns of the neighbors — everything from elk migration patterns to flood plain studies. But no matter what he does, he worries that it will not be enough.
In its rezoning deliberations, the Board of County Commissioners is charged with considering how well a proposed facility will fit within the surrounding community, and judging from the past year, there's no way to smooth the rough edges of this controversy.
"The only way they can build a facility back there like that, in an area for homes, is to widen the road and get the intended use of that easement changed," says Kevin Semcken. "And they can't do that without our approval, and I have made it clear that I will never give that approval, and it's not because of Lost and Found. I've had people call me and say they want a drama camp back there, a fishing camp back there, and I have told everybody the same thing: It is not safe to have large groups back there. It's not what it was designed for."
"The traffic studies we've conducted show that we are going to actually reduce traffic, not increase traffic, from how it was used over the last forty years," counters Terry Rogers. "You're talking about a facility that was used as a campground licensed for up to 220 people, and we're trying to bring in around forty residents plus staff. We are reducing the usage of that land. And I know the problem is that it is zoned residential, but what better place to put a youth residential facility than an area that is zoned for residences?"
"The human social bonds that grounds like Singing River have — that serenity, that tranquility, the babbling water, the wildlife — it's an atmosphere that calms those kinds of troubled spirits," Hargett adds. "For the community to say this isn't the right place is a reversal of realities. What I wish more than anything is that the community could understand that our kids are the same as their kids, and they are not trash that's just supposed to be dumped in a heap somewhere else."
After graduating from Lost and Found on May 25, seventeen-year-old Austin joined the Colorado Range Riders Youth Corps. He's earning $275 a week as "the earth's janitor," he says, fixing trails and cleaning up recreational areas in eastern Colorado.
"I'm pretty sure I'll be busy with this job, and I'm pretty sure I'll be happy at this," Austin says. "One thing I didn't do before is keep myself out of situations where I could relapse. I'd put myself in situations where I would test myself, go to a party where people would be drinking or smoking weed, and I'd try to stay sober. It would work for a while, but not for long. I always was like, 'Man, I have to stay sober the rest of my life, that is such a long time,' instead of like AA says: Take it one day at a time. I think I'm going to try it that way this time, use my parents as support a lot more and try and find some positive friends instead of falling back into old paths."
A less than ideal home life and the death of a close friend were enough to unleash Austin's addictive personality as he voraciously consumed everything from weed to coke to meth. He had dates in courtrooms and detention facilities around the state, racking up charges that ranged from stealing (and crashing) his dad's Mercedes to pulling a gun on a kid at a Castle Rock skatepark. When he was on the run, he would sleep in tunnels and steal from cars to support his habit. Occasionally he'd return to his parents' place in Castle Rock, then Kiowa, call his parole officer and try to turn his life around.
"In my life, I've always been torn by two impulses," he says. "To right my life and to fuck it up on drugs. I've been fully ready to change so many times, but addiction is just an ongoing battle. No matter how bad I want to stop, no matter how much I tell myself I want to stop, I just don't do it."
But both Austin and Lost and Found administrators think this time could be different.
"Austin's another one of those kids that always made good progress," Rogers says. "But he never had the after-care that was needed to follow up on the progress that was made, so he would slip back into it. He came in hopeless in that sense, that he had done things like this and that it was never going to work. The key for Austin is going to be to follow up with him. We're willing to meet with kids as long as they want to, and we're going to see Austin through this next transition."
Austin has already gone through several profound changes. As a kid he'd watched American History X and been intrigued by the neo-Nazi lifestyle, and even though he had friends who were black, he started hanging out with kids who were racist. "And then once I went to jail and got out, I went back to the old friends who were racist, and it seemed like they were right about everything," he says. "Because in jail, you go in there, and the black dudes and the Hispanic dudes, they're always talking shit to you, trying to beat you up, punk you for something, and you just come to believe that their society is messed up. I'm from the suburbs; I wasn't used to stuff like that. But once I went to jail and they had their gangs that would team up against us, the only thing I could do to protect myself would be to find my own little clique to fight back — and that was always white kids who were racist, or just pretending to be racist for protection."
At Lost and Found, he met up with another white student who'd bounced through the system most of his life, and they got in trouble for drawing swastikas. But eventually, through close group therapy and interactions with students from diverse backgrounds, Austin started to open up. And then came an epiphany.
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"We were in a van with some black kids in this program, heading to some outing, and they were listening to rap," Austin recalls. "And they were banging their heads up and down, and I'm real into metal, and I realized those guys were doing exactly what I do when I listen to music. Maybe not as intensely, but the same thing. And it was simple like that. Then they listened to some of my music and were like, 'This is all right.' And it just helped me to get to know someone from a different race as an actual person. There's a lot of people in this world, and you shouldn't judge them just off their skin color."
Nor should you judge them from their background, Austin says, adding that he can't believe that the Clear Creek neighbors think the kids at Lost and Found would be a real threat. "If anyone goes AWOL from here," he points out, "their priority is not to stop and fuck with any of the neighbors, but to go as far and as fast they can."
Because for most, the real priority is to get their lives together. "I just wish they would get to know us a bit," Austin says. "Find out who we really are. A lot of us here are focused on making our lives better. I'm sick of being in the system, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get better. I want a normal life, I want a family and a house and a car. I don't want to be a fuckup my whole life, and I'm working as hard as I can on fixing that. I just think that before they shun us, they should try to figure out what we're all about."