Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Few in Moorhead are aware of the West Central Regional Juvenile Center in the county complex on 11th Street North. But for the teen-agers whose problems and offenses bring them there, it represents something far more than weeks or months of detention. It represents another – perhaps a final – chance to break the cycle that might otherwise lead to prison as an adult.
Some of the teens, mostly boys, who spend time at the Juvenile Center have been arrested and are awaiting their day in court. Others’ cases have been adjudicated, with the court ordering a period of residential detention. Another group of troubled young people spends time on the nonsecure side of the operation while their behavior, mental health and need for therapy is being evaluated. And a fourth group, including “graduates” of the secure residential program, is there to master the skills they’ll need to live independently in the community after their release.
“There’s nothing else quite like it,” says James O’Donnell, who has been the center’s superintendent since 2018. “Almost all of the young people we get have suffered from ACE – adverse childhood experiences. They have experienced physical, sexual and emotional abuse. They’ve witnessed drug and alcohol abuse. They’ve been neglected and had a significant lack of permanence. We do occasionally get someone from a stable home environment, but rarely. Most have had a real lack of positive social adult guidance in their lives.”
The teens who come to the Juvenile Center’s secure programs are sent by the courts or brought by the police after an arrest. Those in non-secure detention come by way of social workers or, sometimes, police officers, but have not been arrested. About half of those in the secure areas have committed personal offenses such as assault. Another 20% have been charged or adjudicated for property crimes like burglary, theft, or criminal damage to property. The remaining 30% are due to drug possession or distribution, terrorizing or disorderly conduct.
Despite vocal social opposition to taking troubled youth out of their homes, he says, for these troubled few it can be a necessary step in the right direction. “Secure detention is a last resort,” the superintendent emphasizes. “We get the kids for whom it’s absolutely necessary. They need to get out of a dysfunctional environment.”
He adds, “We’re trying to do make-up parenting. It’s very hard to mimic a loving family, but we try.”
The Justice Center serves not only teens from Clay County and, since 2015, Cass County. From the beginning in 1971, it has been part of a consortium with nine other Minnesota counties: Becker, Douglas, Grant, Otter Tail, Stevens, Todd, Traverse, Wilkin and Wadena. The center is designed to serve children from 10 to 19, but O’Donnell says getting those younger than 15 is very rare. About half of its residents come from Clay and Cass counties; another quarter or so come from the eight Minnesota members, and the balance are accepted from non-member counties all over the state. It operates on an annual budget of $4 million for secure programs and $2.2 million for non-secure.
Program director Dustin Berg describes daily life in the secure detention and residential divisions as a busy schedule of education and therapy. Moorhead High School provides seven teachers, seven paraprofessionals and a supervisor who staff the center’s seven classrooms. “They’re doing exactly what other students are engaged in,” he explains. One difference is that each young man or woman’s educational level is assessed, and their studies are customized for their needs. “Some are significantly behind in high school credits, often because of truancy or lack of cooperation,” he says. “Here, they aren’t going to fall further behind. In fact, they catch up or exceed where they should be.” One 17-year-old, he says, graduated from high school in recent days with a full diploma. Others who are so far behind that a diploma is unlikely instead work toward their GEDs.
A variety of mental-health therapies make up much of the rest of their days. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a key part for most of them. Provided by Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota, the CBT sessions focus on “Thinking for a Change,” a national curriculum centered around combating impulsive behavior by slowing down thinking and making more positive choices. Other professional offer guidance for those with alcohol and drug dependency, sexual issues and other specific needs.
Facility director Josh Swanson says the program called CLIPS – Community Living Independent Programming & Skills – is “absolutely the next step” in breaking the cycle. “When they’re released, if they’re drive back into the traumatic environment they came from, they don’t stand a chance of making it,” he says.
CLIPS is intended to take the young people to the point of being ready to live independent, healthy lives. Here they learn personal skills like cooking, shopping, budget management and other basics. They get help acquiring the paperwork they need as adults, from birth certificates and social security cards to state IDs and even drivers licenses. They continue their education, work outside the facility or volunteer in the community.
County administrator Steve Larson directed the Juvenile Center until he joined the administration in 2018. “I think it’s fair to say there’s nothing else quite like what we offer here,” he suggests. He credits the county commission for supporting the innovations he and his staff suggested, beginning ten years ago. “The board has been extremely supportive over the years. When other counties were downsizing their programs, they shared our vision – swimming against the tide.” As a result, counties all over the state look to Moorhead for assistance when they need it. He especially cites commissioners Kevin Campbell and Grant Weyland, who retired last fall, for their encouragement.
O’Donnell, Berg and Swanson agree that recruiting and keeping staff is one of the center’s biggest challenges. “Youth are definitely getting more violent. Our staff may get assaulted on a daily basis. Staff turn-over is high,” the superintendent concedes.
Swanson adds, “If they make it past the first three months, we’ll probably have them for a year.” But, he adds, “20% won’t make it that long.”
While they look to hire those with a background in education, social work, psychology or criminal justice, Berg sounds a slightly different note: “I like to see life experience. If they’ve gone through some bumps themselves, they can empathize. They know that life is not perfect. That understanding helps them have a real impact on our youth.”