FAIRMONT - Martin and Faribault counties are talking with the Youth Services International facility in Elmore, but local youth will not be housed there until further notice.
YSI Academy houses at-risk youths ages 13-19, and had been the holding facility for local juveniles finding themselves in trouble with the law. But recently there have been reports of non-violent offenders, such as runaways or truancies, being housed with students from Ramsey County who have been sent to Elmore for violent crimes.
"There are two fundamental things where we have concern," said public defender Bill Grogin, who has worked with juvenile offenders in both counties. "Number one is there is co-mingling with different groups. We have runaways and truancies, students that only need to spend a weekend there, and they are being housed with these tough kids from Ramsey County. Some of those students are there on a 'last chance' contract, before they end up being sent to the juvenile prison in Red Wing. These are kids who are convicted of armed robbery, aggravated assault. We don't want our non-violent students rubbing shoulders with these Ramsey County kids."
Currently, the facility houses about 50 students, with Ramsey County having the largest population at 10. Martin County usually had the second-highest population.
Grogin stated a big concern is that there was no segregation of violent and non-violent students, although there was a separation for age differences. There is also the separation of male and female students. While both sexes are housed at Elmore Academy, it is not run as a co-ed program.
"The [representatives from YSI] offered tours of their facility so we could see how students are housed there," Grogin said. "I would like to see what physical barricades they have to keep an 18-year-old from preying on a 13-year old."
The second issue Grogin mentioned is the quality of staff at the facility. The academy has had issues with high turnover. Last year, it received 172 job applications, granted 65 interviews, and hired 45 new staff members. These positions usually pay $11 to $12 per hour.
"I don't think some of these people are qualified," Grogin said. "I've heard some students say they were more fearful of staff members than they were of other students. [YSI] told us that the people they hire pass background checks, but I don't think that's weeding out some of these people that shouldn't be working in this type of environment. These were the type of concerns we voiced two, three weeks ago, and we're voicing them again."
Officials from YSI headquarters in Florida were in attendance at the meeting with local YSI officials, and purportedly are helping make the needed changes at the academy. In a letter, facility administrator Karen Klabunde indicated some of the changes include:
o The academy has installed 36 security cameras throughout the student areas of the facility.
o Training policies have been revised to cover such things as building relations with the youth, intervention techniques, positive methods for providing feedback, and gang training.
o A new security door is being installed to reduce the likelihood of truancies, and also will aid in keeping separate dorms from having unauthorized interaction.
o Salaries for direct care staff and supervisors have been raised to attract and retain quality staff.
o Aggressively assaultive students have been discharged from the academy.
"They have been making some significiant changes lately," said Martin County Sheriff Capt. Corey Klanderud. "But we want to make sure our kids who aren't in for serious things don't end up getting put in with people there for serious crimes ... They're examining how the kids are screeened in and placed with each other."
Martin County Assistant County Attorney Peter Odgren also attended the meeting. While he said there was no resolution, the meeting sparked some good dialogue between YSI and county officials.
"They were concerned and wanted to be on the same page as us," he said. "But there's a lot more we need to know before we can use that facility again ... They definitely were making it known that they appreciated us using the facility, but we still have concerns about these issues. Our biggest concern is if our residents are safe while they are at the facility. It is our hope and intention to use the facility once these issues are being addressed."
"It's a process that needs to be worked through," Klanderud said. "We hope to work through it, because our transportation is up by four times. We want our juveniles secure, but we also have our budgets costs to watch too."
oth Grogin and Odgren said serious changes need to be implemented before they will send Martin or Faribault County youth back to the academy.
"I've been dealing with Elmore Academy for about seven and a half years," Grogin said. "I didn't hear any real solutions, and most of the people in the juvenile justice system here share these concerns. I don't think anyone was moved."
For now, juveniles needing to be placed in a secure facility are being housed in Willmar. There is also a facility in Rochester and, for lesser offenders, there are facilities in Albert Lea and the Forest Ridge facility in Estherville.
"It's not ideal," Odgren said of juveniles being housed in Willmar. "But we have better assurance of our supervision concerns there."
"Ultimately, the judges decide where a juvenile will go, and they usually do that on the recommendation of the probation department and Human Services," Grogin said. "I don't believe YSI is going to be recommended, and I don't think our judges are going to send our juveniles there ... We can revisit this in the future, but we will need real assurance that the children there will be safe."