Longform

Abused kids may mingle with delinquents at a privately run facility

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.

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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.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar