No end in sight of state control of youth lockups

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Benjamin Hardy

LOCKUP: Mansfield is one of six state facilities that were once operated by nonprofit contractors.

 

Six juvenile treatment and correctional facilities that were unexpectedly taken over by the state in January will not be returning to private hands anytime soon, a spokesman for Governor Hutchinson said last week.

On Dec. 16, Hutchinson directed the Arkansas Department of Human Services' Division of Youth Services (DYS) to assume provisional management of the lockups in response to a political dispute over which private entity would be awarded a DYS contract to run the facilities. Although they have always been owned and overseen by the state, the DYS has paid two Arkansas-based nonprofits to operate the lockups for over two decades. In 2016, however, the agency decided to switch to an Indiana-based for-profit company called Youth Opportunity Investments. The two ousted nonprofits — South Arkansas Youth Services and Consolidated Youth Services — decried the bidding process as unfair, and some legislators of both parties sympathized with their complaints.

In December, a legislative committee blocked the contract with the new provider. With the old contract set to expire at the end of the year and the new contract stalled, the governor was forced to step in at the last minute to avoid a shutdown of the facilities on Jan. 1. At the time, Hutchinson said the state takeover would last for at least six months.

Seven months later, the state is still determining its course of action. "[The] review, which will assist with what to include in any future facilities contract, is still ongoing," J.R. Davis, the governor's communications director, wrote in an email. "The governor receives regular reports from the DYS on the operations of those facilities and expects to have a recommendation in the future as to whether there's a necessity for a third-party operator of these facilities through the DYS. A final decision is expected before the end of the year."

Marq Golden, the DYS' assistant director for residential programs, said the timeline built into the human services agency's budgeting process means the state will keep managing the lockups until at least the end of the current fiscal year, in June 2018. "If we decided to go out tomorrow with the bid, it's still almost a year-long process," he said. "What's critical right now is looking at the services being provided — what should be outsourced and what should be maintained by the state."

The six lockups — comprised of facilities in Dermott, Mansfield, Lewisville, Colt and Harrisburg — housed 191 youth as of July 25. (Another 109 are confined at the state's seventh and largest facility, the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center in Alexander, which is managed by a private provider, Rite of Passage, a Nevada-based for-profit company.) Thirty-eight more youth remanded to DYS custody are waiting in county juvenile detention centers for space to become available at the state lockups. Youth in DYS custody can be placed in county facilities for up to 90 days before being placed in one of the treatment facilities.

Although the proximate reason for the takeover was last year's contract skirmish, the question now is whether those youth are better served — and the facilities more efficiently managed — directly by the DYS or by a private provider.

The initial transition to state control was rocky. Scott Tanner, Arkansas's juvenile ombudsman at the state Public Defender Commission, said the DYS struggled with procurement of basic resources, including hygiene products. "Toilet paper, clothes, detergent, cleaning supplies, food, propane, all that stuff. It requires multiple bids, because of state law, and there was a real concern about programs running out of supplies. Do we have enough food to make it through the week? There was a learning curve — how to find the vendors, how to get them paid administratively."

Most lockup staff were retained and transferred to the state payroll, but some departed and weren't replaced, leading to staffing shortages. Some sites were left without adequate vehicles to transport youth to appointments. Mental and behavioral therapy services unexpectedly ground to a halt.

"The state learned the therapy was being provided by subcontractors. That was news to the state, and news to me," Tanner said. "So, when the state severed its contract with South Arkansas and Consolidated, the subcontractors went away."

On Jan. 26, the advocacy organization Disability Rights Arkansas sent a letter to DYS Director Betty Guhman outlining "neglect that rises to the level of abuse" at several lockups. The DRA letter warned of "critical shortages of staff ... and deplorable, unhealthy physical conditions." It emphasized the "complete lack of mental health therapy for youth at these facilities" — especially troubling because the stated purpose of the facilities is to provide rehabilitative treatment to children. Typically, therapy is part of the treatment plan that youths are required to complete in order to be released. "Youth feel concerned that they are being held without any opportunity to complete the treatment which will lead to their release," the letter stated. "Youth feel like they are trapped in a bad situation without any hope."

The disability rights organization said it also found "a failure to provide required and necessary education" at the lockups. "At Lewisville, monitors observed students in both classrooms watching movies, including the math class viewing a documentary on lions," the organization wrote at the time. At the Dermott Juvenile Treatment Facility, "youth attend only three or four periods a day where they receive instruction and then have 'electives,' which as described by staff and youth alike consists of playing hangman, sitting around, and sometimes going outside when the weather allows." Students with disabilities were not receiving accommodations, DRA said, in violation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act. The organization noted that it had raised concerns about special education deficiencies at the lockups "for more than two years" — long before the takeover. DRA expressed hope that state control might bring improvements. However, the January letter concluded, "at this point, things have only worsened."

The situation appears to have somewhat stabilized in the ensuing months. Disability Rights Arkansas attorney Sharon Cowell said in a recent interview that youth are now receiving therapy, after an initial lapse of several months. Golden said treatment is being provided by way of a separate arm of DHS, the Division of Behavioral Health Services: "Beforehand, they were sending kids off-site for therapy. There were no offices for therapists on campus. ... We feel that having the therapists right there on campus is a big asset for our kids."

The organization remains dissatisfied with the "quality and quantity of mental health treatment the children are getting while in custody," Cowell said. "My sense is that the therapists are coming, but it's taken so long to get everyone through intake and to assess their needs that I don't know how regularly they're seeing each kid and how much progress is really being made toward their goals."

In June, the DYS announced a partnership with Virtual Arkansas, a project of the Arkansas Department of Education that provides online coursework to public schools across the state, particularly campuses in rural communities. Golden said Virtual Arkansas will be the primary means of educational delivery at the six lockups beginning in August. "Students will do their classwork online every day, and then [some] days out of the week, the teachers will broadcast themselves to the students," he said, meaning teachers will remotely deliver video lessons that are streamed to students in real time. Educational coaches and special education teachers will be on-site to assist students in the classroom, he said. "In addition to that, we're keeping our GED courses ... and we're also adding some vocational skills courses for older students on-site." Four teachers system-wide will be displaced by the Virtual Arkansas contract, Golden said; that number is small in part because the facilities were already short of teachers.

Cowell said DRA "still has concerns about the education of the kids while they're in DYS custody. The quality and the rigor — we don't feel that it's aligned with state standards." She also expressed some skepticism about the plan to use Virtual Arkansas. "I don't think sitting in front of a computer is the same as what they would get if they were in a regular public school."

Still, Cowell continued, the state has made progress since January. "They didn't have nurses on staff [at first]," Cowell said. "So, basic physical, medical needs — they didn't have a way to take care of that. They hadn't really figured out dentists or eye doctors ... and they didn't have contracts with suppliers for basic hygiene products. Now, those things seem to have been taken care of." Various facility needs — such as roof damage at the Dermott Juvenile Treatment Center caused by a tornado — have since been addressed, she said.

Because the nonprofit providers owned the vans used to transport youth, the DYS also faced a vehicle shortage after the takeover. "We had to purchase all new vehicles for the facilities through our motor pool," Golden said. The providers took other hardware with them as well, he said, while some items simply needed to be upgraded. "There were a number of small items that we had to come back and replace — uniforms, linens, kitchen equipment, bed mattresses. And we also had to clean up facilities. We probably spent an excess of a million dollars trying to get those facilities up and going within that timeframe," he said. "That's hard cost, not payroll."

The state paid the nonprofits $12.7 million in the last fiscal year to operate the six lockups. Golden said that while the state has been operating under budget since the takeover, he expected the cost of the state running the facilities eventually would be similar to the cost of the state paying the nonprofits to run them.

Asked whether the facilities were in poor condition at the time of the takeover, Golden replied, "I'm not going to say that. They were in adequate shape. They just needed some upgrading."

Cowell said it was too soon to tell whether or not the lockups are better off under state control than in the hands of the nonprofit providers. "I think you can argue that, yes, in some areas we've seen improvements; I don't know if overall it's a whole lot better. It was quite a learning curve for the state to take over, because they really don't have any experience in running juvenile facilities. I don't know that I would argue the previous providers were any better, but there were some things where they did have experience in running juvenile facilities. So I don't know if I can answer that yet. I think we need to see how this plays out a little bit longer."

Tanner, the juvenile ombudsman, said it was "healthy" for the state to be forced to examine how the DYS lockups operate "on a molecular level."

"DYS is learning more about the programs that they, in theory, have always administered," Tanner said.

Ultimately, he continued, it doesn't matter whether the facilities are state-run or contracted to a private provider — the state must be held accountable for conditions there. "Whether nonprofit provider or state provider, both entities made an effort to provide consistency and structure. ... I find failings with both," Tanner said. "Part of the logic the state used in 2000, 2001, when the [Alexander] facility was privatized, was to minimize the state's liability. ... But that's not how it works. Youth are remanded to the care of the state, and so the state is responsible for what happens, regardless."

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

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