By JOY HAMPTON
“When you’re in detention most people have a bad attitude just because they’re there,” said Jane (not her real name).
This 16-year-old, who spent time in a lock-down detention center before being sent to Rogers County Emergency Youth Shelter believes, “Some people don’t even deserve to be there.”
Jane believes she is such a person. A victim of familial abuse, she said she does not understand why she was ever place in detention in the first place.
Herb McSpadden, executive director of Rogers County Youth Services, won’t speak specifically to Jane’s case, but it’s not the first time he’s seen kids like Jane locked up with proven criminals in a maximum security detention facility.
McSpadden, a career youth counselor and advocate also believes maximum penalties for minimum trouble happens too often.
“Juveniles feel things 10 times more intensely than adults,” McSpadden said. When low risk youth are treated in the same manner as high risk or even hardened criminals, he believes they feel adults don’t care about them.
“That’s not the message we want to send,” he said.
In an idea world, very low risk youth would be sent to emergency shelters like the one McSpadden oversees. Primarily, it’s a facility for abused or neglected kids. In some instances, juveniles picked up for shoplifting or fighting with peers might end up at the county shelter.
WHEN SHELTER IS NOT ENOUGH
When juveniles have more serious issues, judges are faced with a tough decision according to McSpadden. Emergency shelters, like the county shelter, are not locked. The only alternative at this time, in Oklahoma, is the maximum security juvenile detention centers.
The County utilizes 13 such centers located as far west as Texas County in the Panhandle to Beckham County near the Texas Panhandle to Bryan County on the Oklahoma-Texas border and Craig County in the northeast.
Undersheriff Barry Lamb said juvenile detention facilities are locked down, have fences with constantino wire, and the building looks like a prison facility.
“It’s basically a children’s jail,” he said.
Jane and John (also not his real name) agree.
John is a chronic runaway who admits his behavior was bad. His father abused him, and he was angry. As he talks about the trauma, he rocks back and forth, seemingly unconscious of the gesture.
“I was really nasty,” John said. “I didn’t like nobody.”
Jane and John describe detention as a cold place with small concrete rooms, concrete floors.
“They make you take your socks off,” said John. “It’s freezing.”
A thin blanket and mattress, metal frame bed connected to the wall and bad food were aspects of detention both kids recall.
“I couldn’t eat the food,” said Jane. “As soon as I got out, my dad took me out to eat.”
The first day in detention is the worst.
McSpadden said he used to work for Sac and Fox, one of the 12 detention facilities frequently used by Rogers County for youthful offenders. Rogers County has no detention center.
He said when youth arrived at the facility the point was to scare them from the start. They were made to undress and to shower with lice shampoo. Personal possessions are not allowed, and everyone wears orange jumpsuits. Metal doors are clanged loudly behind the youth.
“The message is: These are heavy doors and you’re not leaving,” said McSpadden. Staff are encouraged to get in the newcomer’s face to show who is in control.
“I was scared because I’d never been in trouble before,” said Jane. “It felt like prison. It was connected to the jail. The female officer was hateful. She did not like me. She kept calling me a liar.”
Jane said she had not known why she was sent to detention. Days later, the system recognized that she was a victim, not a perpetrator. She was allowed some time with family then she was sent to the emergency shelter for her own safety.
Still she hasn’t forgotten how being in detention made her feel.
“You’re labeled as troublemakers. I get mad when people won’t listen to me, so I have a really bad attitude,” Jane said.
“It made me feel dirty inside,” John said.
ALTERNATIVE TO DETENTION
“I’m not anti-juvenile detention,” said McSpadden, “but there’s too wide a range of kids there.”
According to facts gathered by McSpadden and his staff, there could be as many as 80-85 percent of the youth sent to detention centers don’t belong there. That’s because right now the state of Oklahoma has no alternative, nothing between full security detention and emergency shelters.
McSpadden would like to change that, and he’s been gathering information and working with legislators on a proposal to build an “alternative to detention shelter.”
In addition to providing a safe, locked environment for lower risk youth, such a shelter could save taxpayer dollars according to McSpadden.
Right now county and state dollars pay to transport youth to and from detention centers across the state.
Beds are in high demand and the costs of running such a facility are high.
Alternative placement would serve to house juveniles picked up for things like minor in possession of beer, violation of court probation, youth in danger of harming themselves, runaways, chronic truants, and those in contempt of court.
Right now, these kids usually end up in detention with serious offenders such as murderers and drug dealers.
“They typically come out worse than when they went in,” said McSpadden.
The plan for an alternative to detention center in Rogers County has been in the works “going on four years of planning” McSpadden said. If constructed, it will cost less than a maximum detention facility and would be more effective, he believes, because kids could get counseling and treatment, and have their families nearby.
An average stay in a local alternative center could run 28 days and a network of support services by various agencies would be in place. Community support would continue after the youth left alternative placement.
“It’s a win-win for the community,” said Lamb.
The alternative center would be a “secure facility that looked like a residential facility,” McSpadden said. It would be comfortable and safe, something detention centers are not, but the juvenile would not be able to leave.
McSpadden envisions a facility where staff would be trained to redirect kids’ behavior and teach them life skills. Therapists would work with troubled youth and their parents.
“National research has shown that treatment is most effective when you keep kids in their communities where they and their families can access a support network,” said McSpadden.
Runaways like John would not have to be put in with serious offenders just because they need to be in a secured facility until they can be trusted not to run away again.
“You’re like cattle,” said John of his detention experience. “They stamp you, they make money off you.”
John said that in one detention center a “kid tried to shank me” with a homemade knife and that “kids will jump you from behind.”
“They put people in there for extremely stupid reasons,” said Jane. “They don’t even give you a chance to prove you didn’t do something. They just put you in there until the court date.”
John and Jane are happy to be in the emergency shelter now.
“The people actually care about kids here,” said John.
“I’d rather be home,” Jane admitted. “But here the staff is really, really nice.”
“Kids are shown respect here,” said Deb Harris, Capacity Building coordinator.
John said now he has goals and dreams. He wants to go back to school and eventually learn to be a welder so that he can get a good job and take care of himself.
“Try your best to stay out of trouble,” he advises other youth.
By JOY HAMPTON