January 5, 2015
State policy changes endanger juvenile detention staff, former workers say
By Arthur Kane | Watchdog.org
Colorado Department of Human Services administrators have “coddled” inmates and led to the increase in attacks on staff with a series of policy and procedural changes, former employees told Watchdog.org.
“It was the policies by (CDHS executive director) Reggie Bicha,” said Robert Suiter, who worked for more than a decade as a youth corrections staffer before leaving in August. “They don’t care about staff safety.”
Suiter said he left without another job because he felt the work was too dangerous. Bicha, through a spokesman, declined to comment on Suiter’s allegations.
DANGEROUS POLICIES: A former staffer says policies implemented by CDHS executive director Reggie Bicha and his staff are responsible for increased attacks on staff.
This month, Watchdog.org stories exposed that inmates injured staff at nearly double the past average rates after a July policy banning most inmate seclusion. Documents also showed how repeat offenders were free to commit multiple attacks on staff and other inmates with apparently few consequences.
The stories prompted the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee on Monday to grill Bicha and his top staff about the problems at juvenile facilities.
Suiter said the policy that banned seclusion as part of special management plans — plans designed to improve problem youth behavior by taking away privileges and increasing counseling — made inmates realize there were few consequences for violence. And while not an official policy change, the word went out that there would be more scrutiny of staff using physical force or restraint to control violent inmates, he said.
“You can’t touch kids, you can’t lock kids up,” said Suiter, who worked at Spring Creek Youth Services Center, which has had the most violence against staff in recent months. “But these are seasoned criminals who have been committed a number of times — veterans — and if you can’t lock them up, they’re going to start punching people in the face as often as they can get away with it.”
Instead of dealing harshly with hardened juvenile inmates, CDHS this year implemented a “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support” method designed to “infuse positive reinforcement” into facilities, a CDHS presentation shows. PBIS will be used with prior techniques like placing staff where they can see and control inmates, using verbal deescalation (which staff called verbal judo), setting limits, intervening early in misbehavior that could lead to dangerous situations and developing “meaningful” relationships with youth.
GOOD VIBRATIONS: State policy is designed to infuse positive reinforcement into the increasingly violent juvenile detention facilities.
On Monday, Bicha informed lawmakers that youth detention banned SMP seclusion — using seclusion only in emergencies — because the American Civil Liberties Union complained systematic seclusion to control inmates violates state law.
Robert Werthwein, acting director of CDHS Division of Youth Corrections, said the state is using appropriate policies in detention centers.
“We use seclusion when it’s appropriate, but we can’t violate (anyone’s) rights,” he said, adding there is no additional scrutiny of physical force if approved methods are used. “We want to use evidence-based practices so we’re doing good by the youth, treating the youth.”
Larry Farmer, a former teacher and principal at schools in youth detention centers who retired four years ago, said the seclusion ban and other policy changes have led to a decline in discipline.
“I don’t think the kids are held accountable like they need to be,” said Farmer, who contacted Watchdog.org after the first juvenile detention stories were published.
Farmer said closing a center in Pueblo designed to treat severely mentally ill youths and dismantling the positive peer model, where a pod of youths lost privileges if one acted out, have also led to a much more dangerous juvenile detention system.
CLOSURE CONTROVERSY: CDHS moved youth out of a special mental health center in Pueblo in 2011 and provided treatment in remaining facilities.
“Kids live up to or down to the expectations that you put on them,” he said. “If you don’t expect them to behave correctly, they’ll keep pushing those limits and their behavior is going slide.”
Werthwein countered that studies show the peer model isn’t effective, and CDHS ended the technique in 2012.
“We don’t use that model because it promotes the types of hierarchy you see in gangs,” Werthwein said. “It can create power struggles within the group.”
Bicha told the JBC that CDHS moved youths out of the Pueblo facility and made mental health treatment available in all the detention centers.
But Suiter, who Watchdog.org found from a state database of employees who recently left juvenile detention jobs, said the department is treating criminals like innocent school children.
“They’re coddling inmates because (administration is) scared of the ACLU,” he said.
Farmer said youths were allowed to stay in their rooms if they didn’t want to attend class.
“There was no accountability when it came down to saying (youths) must be in class,” he said. “They said it was the schools’ fault they’re not coming to school, but what kid would come school when they can stay in their rooms and sleep?”
CDHS practice is to require mandatory school attendance if the student isn’t sick or misbehaving, Werthwein said. The written policy says education is offered to all juveniles and the director must approve of absences of more than one day.
CDHS is asking the Legislature for nearly $10 million over two years to increase staff, but Suiter said it’s tough to fill positions because of the job’s dangers.
Bicha admitted the same thing to JBC on Monday as he discussed the division’s 23 percent turnover rate in the past fiscal year.
“Recruits think it is one job and were really getting another,” he told lawmakers, adding the staff vacancy rate at juvenile detention is 4.8 percent. “They find the kids in this setting are very different than what they expected.”
Farmer and Suiter conceded that additional detention workers may help stem the violence, but policy and procedural changes are also key to making juvenile detention centers safer.
For example, Watchdog.org found police reports that pointed out how many violent inmates, some over 18 and about to be charged with adult crimes, are taken to a county jail to be booked for attacks at juvenile facilities but then brought back to the youth center. Another report showed how an attacker and his victim were not kept away from each other after the victim filed charges, resulting in more violence.
“That’s someone not doing their job,” Farmer said.
Werthwein said CDHS doesn’t decide where to detain suspects after charges and juvenile staff attempt to place inmates in appropriate circumstances within the confines of state juvenile detention resources.
Bicha also said it’s up to the victim to decide whether to press charges and administrators neither encourage nor discourage prosecution.
Despite a major drop in youth detention population, Bicha and Werthwein attributed the increase in violence to more gang-affiliated and troubled youth coming into the juvenile detention system.
Figures obtained by Watchdog.org show that staff injuries nearly doubled between July and October over any other four-month period since late 2012, but Bicha’s JBC presentations shows all assaults at the state’s juvenile facilities have steadily increased from 133 in 2010 to 176 projected for this year.
ATTACK INCREASE: This chart tracks assaults at juvenile detention facilities.
“We’ve taken kids that are not as violent and moved them out to the community and now we have a higher concentration (of violent youth) and we’re looking at the best ways to control population mix we do have within the facilities,” Werthwein said.
Suiter said the juvenile system doesn’t protect staff, other inmates or society.
“You don’t have the tools there,” he said. “You have (inmates) in the youth detention that influence and prey on people, and they have nothing to lose.”