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Horror Stories From the Colorado Division of Youth Services Center

An image from the Colorado Division of Youth Services family handbook. We've disguised the identity of the youth in the photo.
An image from the Colorado Division of Youth Services family handbook. We've disguised the identity of the youth in the photo.

The father of an inmate at a Colorado Division of Youth Services facility in the Denver metro area says his son was initially placed in a cell marred by feces, urine and dried semen that he was ordered to clean up, then assigned to a high-risk pod for an extended stretch even though he had been regularly receiving threats of physical violence. He says staffers at the facility only began giving the inmate access to previously prescribed anti-depressants after persistent pressure from his parents.

These reports come amid increased scrutiny of the state's Youth Services system prompted by a series of problems at the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center, a Golden-based facility for male juvenile offenders. Since May, LMYSC has been associated with a riot that caused injuries to four inmates and ten workers; the escape of two teenage sex offenders who were later recaptured; reports of violent disruptions, drugs and sex from a former inmate; the bust-out of violent offender Quinn Scaggs and subsequent accusations that he'd taken part in multiple pistol whippings during his time on the run; the charging of former staffer Kristin Gonzales for allegedly aiding in the escape of an inmate with whom she had a romantic relationship and harboring him for more than a year; and the guilty plea of another ex-employee, Joseph Forrest, for possessing child pornography.

We've agreed not to identify the father or the inmate because of their fears of retribution. Neither are we naming the center where the teen is currently incarcerated — but it's not Lookout Mountain.

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Colorado Division of Youth Services personnel declined to make a spokesperson available to respond to the father's assertions since they pertained to a specific individual. Instead, we were directed to online resources such as policy descriptions and a handbook for parents and guardians of inmates.

According to the father, the assistant director at the center where his son is being held confirmed that staffers are supposed to mop up human waste and the like rather than using such tasks as either punishment or a way of establishing dominance over inmates; he promised to reiterate this message to staffers.

Regarding the high-risk pod assignment, the father says the decision appears to have been dictated by the seriousness of the charge against his son, even though it remains only an accusation at this writing and the teen has no prior record. During his time in the pod, his son was threatened with beatings if he didn't surrender his food to aggressive inmates and was smacked in the head for not agreeing to surrender his telephone time. His parents are convinced that he wouldn't have been moved to a medium-risk pod despite all of these issues if they hadn't complained through a series of internal and external channels.

The failure to provide the inmate's medication, meanwhile, came down to a disagreement between the teen's physician and the person who performs medical evaluations at the center. The dispute lasted around two weeks, during which time the inmate was made to go cold turkey, resulting in an exacerbation of his anxiety that led to outbursts. Again, pressure from his parents finally turned the tide, and the father says the teen is much more emotionally stable now that he's back on his prescription regimen.

The web page created for the families of youth corrections clients encourages interactions with the center, as seen in the following graphic:

All inmates spend time at a DYS assessment center, the page notes; there are two in the state, located in Denver and Grand Junction. There, they are given a medical screening, a dental checkup, a clinical evaluation (including legal, family and social history), a trauma assessment designed to identity "exposure to traumatic events and symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," and tests to determine academic progress and vocational interests.

Afterward, inmates are the subject of what's called a "Multidisciplinary Team meeting" within thirty days of commitment, to include parents and a client manager assigned to the inmate. That's when a determination is made about whether the inmate will wind up in community placement ("a non-secure facility provides temporary care of a youth in a community-based setting"), staff-secure placement ("security is provided by staff rather than physical barriers such as a fence") or secure placement (a facility providing "temporary care of a youth in a physically restrictive environment"). Under all these scenarios, however, inmates are slated to attend school an average of 25 hours per week, with subjects including math, science, social studies, language arts and "life skills."

The role of family members is characterized like so:

No one knows your family like you do. You’re the expert and your voice is extremely important throughout the process. Approved family members are encouraged to take part in all aspects of their son/daughter’s involvement with DYS, from the initial assessment process through their return to the community. You may be involved in family therapy, treatment team meetings, educational planning meetings, special events and other activities that allow you to take part in decisions.

We encourage and support your contact with your son/daughter. Visits, phone calls and mail are common forms of contact. Each facility will be able to introduce you to your son/daughter’s individual communication and contact plan while they are in residential placement. If you need support with participating in visits you are encouraged to work with the facility and the Client Manager assigned to your son/daughter. 

This may sound good, but the father says he's found the system extremely difficult to navigate, and that proved frustrating when it became clear his son's physical and mental health were at risk. The situation only improved after the inmate's folks connected with a parent advocate, who was able to explain the most effective ways to address issues.

As for what improvements should be made, the father says, "I think a good first step is transparency. We didn't know where to go to find out 'These are the policies. This is what you should expect' or even 'This is how you schedule a time to visit your kid.' We didn't understand the discipline policy; we went in knowing nothing. Just having more awareness would be good, and I think that's what they're trying to do. But we're frightened, and our kid is scared to death. We have no answers for our kid, and as a parent, that's terrifying."

Click to read the Colorado Division of Youth Services family handbook.

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