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Changes underway at troubled youth detention facility in Colorado Springs

By: Debbie Kelley AND MEGAN SCHRADER The Gazette
July 13, 2014
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After denying in May that security problems existed at Spring Creek Youth Services Center, officials at the Colorado Department of Human Services now are acknowledging troubles at the detention facility and have told state lawmakers changes are afoot.

"That was exactly what I was looking for," said Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, who has worked in the community with juvenile offenders for years and began asking questions about conditions in the facility after hearing from teachers who were afraid for their safety.

Citing concerns over the safety of 14 employees working at the center to provide education to juvenile offenders, Colorado Springs School District 11 announced in May it would not renew the contract it has had since Spring Creek opened in 1998.

In a June 23 letter obtained by The Gazette, the director of the state's Office of Children, Youth and Families, Julie Krow, said the agency intends to take substantial corrective actions after recognizing that things had gotten out of control at the center.

She outlined six steps, one of which - temporarily moving 10 committed males to another facility - has been completed. An additional seven staff members have been hired in the past two months in response to concerns over dwindling staff levels.

But Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, said he still has concerns about the lack of transparency in the agency. He asked during a June legislative budget hearing for an update on the conditions and transitions occurring at Spring Creek.

He said Thursday his request has not been fulfilled.

"I've requested again that we do not need to examine every record of every individual but we do need to know if there are violent incidents, their characterization and how many there are," Lambert said.

A Gazette request for an interview with a DHS official made on Tuesday last week and re-requested on Thursday was not granted.

DHS also refused in early June to release to The Gazette records or data related to incidents at Spring Creek, saying the state's juvenile detention centers are exempt from open records law.

An official from the Division of Youth Corrections, a part of DHS that runs the facility, told The Gazette in May that there had not been any instances of assault involving a teacher in several years.

D-11 teachers who spoke to The Gazette over the past two months said security personnel were understaffed during school hours, and increased gang activity and violence had created a dangerous situation for workers at the 80-bed center.

A May 6 letter D-11 Superintendent Nicholas Gledich sent to staff explaining the decision to end the contract also mentioned safety and security concerns, saying, "Staff who once felt safe working in the facility is concerned for their individual safety and the proper environments to conduct their work. They continue to express this."

Lambert said he was concerned that the Division of Youth Corrections denied The Gazette's open records request for incident reports under sweeping language in state statute that appears to limit the release of records.

"If that is the interpretation, that basically the department can somehow hide behind that statute and not provide public documents, then we may need to go ahead and change the statute next year because this is not what I think the legislature intended," he said.

Lambert said documents can be redacted to protect the juveniles who are incarcerated but still provide an important look at the safety and security of facilities.

Lee, who said he started hearing about safety concerns from staff at Spring Creek more than a year ago, agreed that the agency needs to be open for scrutiny.

"These are juveniles, we don't want to have their past sins emblazoned in the public records," Lee said. "But we could learn a lot about successes and failures and activities in the department by disclosure of information, including incidents both major and minor."

Changes underway

D-11's contract expired June 30, and DHS is negotiating a contract for educational services for the youth with Harrison School District 2. That district covers the geographic boundary of the detention center, at 3190 E. Las Vegas St.

The center has 29 beds for committed juvenile offenders who serve terms of two years or less and 51 detention beds for juveniles awaiting court action. Males and females ages 10 to 21 are at the site.

After a June 19 meeting with Krow, Lee said he was encouraged by the DHS plan to remedy the safety and security concerns.

"They stepped right up to the issues," Lee said. "I walked out of there very enthusiastic and pleased with what I had heard."

Six reorganizational strategies for Spring Creek listed in Krow's letter are:

- "Provide an opportunity for staff and youth to regain an environment of safety and security through a temporary decrease in the population of committed males."

Ten boys have been temporarily removed, with 10 remaining. The purpose of reducing the population of committed youth, the letter states, is "to allow the facility staff an opportunity to regroup and receive training and to improve both the staff and youth culture."

- "Increase deployable staff and positively impact staff culture."

To achieve this goal, the division has hired seven staff members and plans to add three more. The percent of deployable staff has increased from 68 percent to 85 percent.

- "Institute intensive training, coaching and skill-building for Spring Creek staff."

Training will include developing positive relationships with the youth, focusing on strength-based approaches. Self-care strategies workshops will be held during team meetings.

- "Implement necessary facility systems and processes to effectively operate Spring Creek."

Teams will help ensure consistency in programming and improve communication through weekly staff meetings, daily briefings for school personnel and new committees.

Other changes will include increasing recreational activities for youth and reviewing and enhancing the process for serving and hearing major rule violations.

- "Develop community pride in the cleanliness, orderliness and maintenance of the facility."

This will involve a campaign that includes projects where staff and youth work together and do facility celebrations. Also, damaged furnishings and equipment will be repaired, replaced or removed.

- "Continuous quality improvement."

Audit teams will review programming and policies for effectiveness to continually improve quality of the center.

Staff turnover

Harrison D-2 Superintendent Andre Spencer said last week he expects to complete contract negotiations within two to three weeks and start educational services in mid to late August.

The district is hiring 10 to 15 staff, he said, including an educational director. Staff will receive five to six weeks training before classes start.

The Division of Youth Corrections also has hired a new facility director, Dave Maynard, who in the past supervised five state-operated facilities.

"This appointment is directly in line with our discussion regarding the critical nature of having a leader with integrity, as well as the skills to move the facility forward," the letter from Krow stated.

Turnover of staff who work directly with the youth jumped from 20 percent in fiscal year 2012-2013 to 30 percent in 2013-2014, according to correspondence from the Office of Children, Youth and Families obtained by The Gazette. The primary reason is resignation. In the 2013-2014 fiscal year, 22 of the 73 staff members who work with the youth resigned, retired or were terminated or transferred.

The department is analyzing staffing patterns at all Division of Youth Corrections facilities, according to the correspondence, to determine whether staffing levels are adequate.

Spencer said the focus will be on meeting the needs of the students the center serves.

As far as problems the center has had and changes the state is making, Spencer said, "We're still assessing and anticipating security will not be an issue. We're having conversations around security measures and processes to make sure everyone's safe. Open, honest dialogue is our goal."

Spencer said the plan is not to "dismantle anything," but to assess measures that are in place and progress and make improvements as needed.

Contract negotiations with the state agency have gone well, Spencer said.

"Both entities are pretty much in agreement about requirements," he said, "and it's been very positive at this point."

The contract will be a one-year, renewable agreement, which is the same setup D-11 had.

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