Updated: July 18, 2014 at 9:03 am
Division of Youth Corrections officials acknowledged Thursday a gamut of problems at Spring Creek Youth Services Center while outlining steps they have begun taking to improve safety of staff and treatment of juveniles.
Data provided to local lawmakers by Youth Corrections this week and obtained by The Gazette show that there have been 139 fights or assaults involving staff or juveniles in the facility in fiscal year 2013-14. Of those, 16 were youth-on-youth Level 1 assaults that caused or attempted to cause a serious injury requiring "urgent medical care that is more extensive than first aid." Seven were youth-on-staff Level 1 assaults.
"Over time, we saw simply a drift away from maintaining the norms in a facility like Spring Creek that we would expect," said Al Estrada, who recently took over as the state's director of Youth Corrections after John Gomez retired from a lauded 20-year career with the state.
"We've seen some issues go unaddressed in the milieu. That never leads to very good outcomes when you are in that kind of a setting," Estrada said.
A series of Gazette articles over the past two months brought the issues to light, despite insistence from some officials that the facility had no problems.
Interviews with teachers and lawmakers who expressed concerns, as well as access to public documents, painted the picture of a detention and treatment center for juvenile criminal offenders that was out of control.
Teachers said they feared for their safety or the safety of Youth Corrections staff.
In a meeting Thursday with local lawmakers Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, and Rep. Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs, Youth Corrections officials detailed six measures being taken to address issues and concerns.
The move also comes as the contract with a local school district to provide education to the youths changes hands. Colorado Springs School District 11 officials decided in May to not renew the long-standing contract it has had with Spring Creek, and a contract with Harrison School District 2 is in negotiations.
Anders Jacobson, associate director of Youth Corrections, said the number of assaults at Spring Creek was "elevated" compared to the other nine state-operated facilities.
"I think overall, statewide, we've done a good job with addressing assaults and fights and are seeing a reduction in that, but we definitely saw a slight elevation of (assaults) that took place around the December time that lasted a few months at Spring Creek," Jacobson said. "It did come down to, not a widespread group of youth, but a few who were inflicting this level of aggression."
Jacobson said conditions have improved in the past month, thanks in part to the changes being implemented.
"It's fair to say that we've had a significant reduction in a lot of different areas at Spring Creek, including fights and assaults," Jacobson said.
The information provided to lawmakers notes that the Colorado Department of Human Services - which oversees Youth Corrections - "reviewed the past two fiscal years of records of youth and staff fights and has not found a single incident of a teacher being assaulted."
Teachers told The Gazette that their reporting of incidents was not always recognized as such, and often resulted in no action being taken.
A better incident-reporting system is among the changes Youth Corrections is making, officials said.
Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, requested the data on behalf of the state's Joint Budget Committee.
"The fact that there seems to be 139 assaults or fights in a year's period, and a fairly good percentage of those were directed against staff, is of great concern to me," Lambert said.
Lambert was unable to attend the tour of the facility Thursday with Lee and Exum, but said he expects the JBC will check on the facility in September.
Also in response to concerns, the population of committed males has been temporarily decreased by 16. Some youths were moved to other centers, others left because they transitioned out of the program.
The youth-to-staff ratio is now one youth to 4.5 staff, which Estrada said is higher than normal but necessary "so we can re-establish things."
Spring Creek, at 3190 E. Las Vegas St., serves both committed and detained youths between the ages of 14 and 20, Estrada said. It has 80 beds for committed youths serving terms that vary anywhere from a few months to several years, and juveniles who are awaiting court hearings who are usually there for 15 to 17 days.
The facility now houses nine committed males, the portion of the population that Estrada said "is where we've seen the bulk of the issues that brought us to this place."
Aside from a reduction in fights and violence, Estrada said the culture and morale have improved.
"That's one thing I noticed today at the facility that has changed," Estrada said. "People are happy, people are smiling, people are greeting us, people are laughing, people are engaged with kids and laughing and talking with kids.
"I understand the focus on what things were like, but we really have to focus on where we are headed."
He attributes much of the change to the new facility director Dave Maynard, who took over in late June.
Lee, whose political platform has included a focus on youths, said the center has an opportunity to help youths turn around their lives.
"Your work here has a lot to do with how that plays out," he told Youth Corrections officials Thursday. "If there's a lot of anger, trauma, threat, harassment that I was seeing previously, that almost inevitably is going to lead to a return to the Department of Corrections later on. It's not a simple job. It's going to take a lot of work to get it together. When they get out, they're going to have to have a self-restraint mechanism. The only way they're going to learn that is from you and your staff teaching it."