At the Capitol and in a recent op-ed, the Division of Youth Services has reaffirmed its commitment to culture change in DYS facilities. DYS has also put forward a plan to break down Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center into smaller facilities, to allow critical culture change to take root. These are the right steps to ensure safe and effective environments in DYS facilities, including Lookout Mountain.
The call for culture change in Colorado’s juvenile facilities has been gaining momentum since 2014, when child safety advocates, including ACLU of Colorado, Disability Law Colorado, the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender, and the Colorado Juvenile Defender Center, raised concerns about the restraint and isolation of youth within DYS facilities. Over the last several years, through a combination of reforms, DYS has limited youth seclusion and changed policies to prohibit staff from striking or using pain compliance to discipline youth. As a result, DYS was recognized nationally for its drastic reduction in the frequency and length of time that staff put youth in seclusion.
Despite these changes, problems persist, including the continued frequent physical restraint of children in DYS facilities across the state, and recent incidents of violence, escape, and drug use at Lookout Mountain. Some have questioned whether the reforms were the cause of these incidents and suggested that DYS should return to a more militaristic and punitive approach. In truth, while many Lookout staff members have embraced the reforms, others have questioned them all along.
ACLU and DYS can sometimes be at odds. But here we agree: the problem is not that the reforms were the wrong ones–the problem is that the reforms, and true culture change, have yet to be fully achieved within DYS.
A combination of other factors caused issues at Lookout. High-profile escapes and riots have been reported at Lookout for years, well before the reforms. But Lookout became more unstable because programming had eroded and significant staff turnover had taken hold. Over the past year, staff turnover at Lookout skyrocketed to 42%. Staff who were previously assigned to work with the same youth were suddenly reassigned to different units each day, and unable to build meaningful relationships with youth — at times staff did not even know kids’ names. In that vacuum, fear between staff and kids took hold, leading to mistrust, misbehavior and even violence.
As any parent knows, youth need both activity and stability in their schedule and caretakers. The daily schedule at Lookout changed three times in a year, group programs were cancelled 60% of the time, and key activities and rehabilitation programs, including sports, were completely cut. As programming decreased, the presence of illegal drugs, brought in by both kids and staff, increased on campus. Youth were idle and the program was inconsistent. National studies and standards show that this is a recipe for unsafe facilities.
DYS has already taken steps to address immediate issues at Lookout by bringing in a new interim director, reestablishing a consistent schedule, restoring regular therapeutic groups, and taking steps to remove all drugs from the facility. But a larger problem remains—a lack of buy-in from some staff for culture change contributed to Lookout’s program breakdown. To prevent issues in the future, we must ensure that culture change, including the essential reforms already made, takes root in all DYS facilities.
Dividing Lookout into smaller facilities, and moving toward smaller DYS facilities across the state, will promote the relationship-based culture that is key to safety in the facility and success for youth. The use of small facilities in other states has reduced violent incidents, restraint, seclusion, and youth suicide. Since housing no more than 25 youth in its facilities, North Carolina saw a 73% decrease in re-arrest rates.
ACLU will continue to monitor DYS, and its change management plan to ensure that kids and staff on the ground are seeing these changes in practice. We will also continue to investigate the restraint of youth by staff in DYS facilities. As we do so, ACLU supports DYS’ dedication to doubling down on culture change and moving toward smaller facilities. Evidence demonstrates that these steps will make facilities safer for Colorado’s youth and staff, and give kids the best chance of success when they return home.
The ACLU of Colorado is the state’s oldest civil rights organization, protecting and defending the civil rights of all Coloradans through litigation, education and advocacy.