2019 incidents at the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center:
April 26 — A staff member is arrested on suspicion of sexual exploitation of a child.
May 1 — 11 staff members are injured in a riot at the center.
May 3 — Three sex offenders with gang affiliations escape.
May 28 — Three female guards are injured breaking up a fight at the facility.
June 25 — A 17-year-old escapes and commits several burglaries in Colorado Springs.
Sept. 25 — An investigation determines that a former center employee helped an inmate escape and provided shelter for him for about a year.
After a tumultuous year that saw two convicted sex offenders escape and both residents and staff members alike injured in multiple incidents, the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center in Golden is being reorganized around a new guiding principal: “smaller is better.”
Staff members of Colorado’s departments of human and youth services announced on Jan. 30 several changes for the center, including a plan to divide it into four smaller separate youth centers and reduce the facility’s total resident population from about 150 to a maximum of 112.
The staff members explained those changes, which are designed to improve both the safety and security of the center and the effectiveness of the treatment services that are offered to the youth offenders that reside there, are being implemented in response to the widely report problems at the center.
MORE: Lookout Mountain escapee arrested after several armed robberies
“We’ve been working diligently to understand the root causes of the challenges and to move to take action to correct the errors that need reform but also to double down on the things that are working and do more of those,” Colorado Department of Human Services Executive Director Michelle Barnes said. “This does not happen overnight but we are committed to the safety of our youth and staff in our 10 state-run facilities.”
Barnes said an outside study had determined three main issues existed at the center that were contributing to the problems it had experienced: the presence of drugs at the center, a need for more focus on basic safety, and the facility’s shift from a correctional model to one oriented around rehabilitation.
“That is a major shift and it just needs more focus and more attention than we have been giving it so we are doubling down on culture change at all of our youth services centers,” Barnes said.
DHS staff members said the plan to divide the facility into four youth services centers will attempt to address those issues by reducing the number of other residents and staff members each resident has contact with during the day while facilitating an environment where both staff and residents can create tighter bonds.
Each of the four youth centers will have between 16 and 36 residents. They will live in pods consisting of 10 to 12 beds inside four separate existing buildings at Lookout Mountain. All of those center residents will attend classes, eat meals and do other activities with the other residents of their center but will not have contact with the other centers.
“You want the youth to bond together to create the safe milieu as well as strong relationships with the staff,” Division of Youth Services Director Anders Jacobson said. “When you disrupt that each and every day and send a whole group of youth to school at one time and they are comingling in recreation-type activities then you are disrupting that cohesiveness and introducing new youth to other youth constantly. We have found that has been one of our big disruptions to get away from.”
The problems that stem from the intermingling have not been a problem at DYS’ other facilities the way they have been at Lookout Mountain, which is one the state’s biggest youth services facilities. That further suggests that it does not make sense to put so many kids together, Jacobson said.
“If somebody said `if Colorado had no youth services centers than what would you build” than you would not see this,” Jacobson said of the Lookout Mountain facility. “But that doesn’t take us away from the philosophy we have in place and that’s really what we’ve put our heads together on to say `we can’t go out and build four more youth services centers the way we want them’ but we can sure do the philosophy here which is right for kids and right for staff.”
Though the reorganization is one of the biggest changes being made to the center, Barnes said the facility has already implemented new rules, including changes to the search policy and the implementation of random drug dog searches, to address the drug issues. Other changes are aimed at addressing the center’s 40 percent staff turnover rate, which will include increased training and better tools for evaluating candidates to work at the center.
But the staff were clear that as the center moves forward with the new structure and other changes, it will continue to embrace its new model focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
“What we know is that punitive interventions with youth are not things that teach them skills so that when they leave us, they can be safe members of the community,” said Perry May, CDHS’ deputy executive director of Health Facilities. “What works with youth is doing an assessment to understand the underlying issues behind their behaviors and then working with them to shape new behaviors so when they leave us, they can be safe in the community.”
But May said that while that shift is ultimately supported by research, there could be more growing pains along the way.
“When you move from a punitive environment to an environment that is more rehabilitative that is a pretty normal reaction for staff to feel like we used to be able to really have control of the kids through these punitive measures and now we are using our relationship and incentives and trying to teach skills to them that can feel out of control,” he said. “But research shows very, very clearly that is a more impactful and successful model.”
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