HF 947 May Impact Juvenile Center

WCRJC Superintendent James O’Donnell explains why HF947 may be problematic for his center.

Karen Newman 

Superintendent James O’Donnell, West Centra Regional Juvenile Center (WCRJC) appealed to the Clay County Commission for support in response to proposed actions in the Minnesota State Legislature. He said, “Last week I had the WCRJC advisory board meeting. In that meeting, I shared a couple of pieces of legislation that are currently in the house and in the senate.   The bills are essentially going through pretty quickly without, I think, proper information.” He emphasized, “I am speaking from a facilities standpoint.” He added that the bills also affect law enforcement and social services.

 “House File (HF) 947, on the surface, seems like the correct thing to do,” he said. “A lot of information and testimony was given to the legislature.  None of this information was requested of juvenile centers or facilities anywhere in the state.” He continued by explaining that from the facilities standpoint, eliminating Disciplinary Room Time (DRT), is the primary problematic issue saying, “DRT is not solitary confinement; it is not isolation; it’s not the hole. . It’s nothing like that.”  DRT is for incidents such as assault and threats. He explained that with the removal of DRT, all residents (normally nine or ten in a pod) remain together, the presence of the individual who would normally be in DRT causes a traumatic chaos environment for the other youth preventing them from continuing to function in the program. He said, “HF947 doesn’t worry about the nine kids. It worries about the one individual.”

O’Donnell emphasized that it isn’t just the professional staff he worries about if HF947 passes.  He conducted sample surveys of youth, currently in detention, asking, “Would you feel safer in a facility if residents were never placed on DRT?” The response from the majority was that it was not safe at all. A survey of youth who completed DRT time found that most felt it was an appropriate consequence for the action committed.

HF 947 proposes that no one under thirteen be placed in secure detention.  O’Donnell says that placement of children in secure detention under age thirteen is rare with the majority being twelve years old. This age group comprised only 1.5% of the population. 1.3% of the under-thirteen group were ordered to secure detention by a judge.  SF951 is the related senate bill, sponsored by three senators from the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro.

O’Donnell declared, “No one is opposed to anything that is going to help the kids, but how is it safely going to happen?” He went on to say that he can’t recommend retaining a youth that continues to assault in detention because it is too dangerous for the others in the pod.

Commissioner Jenny Mongeau stated, “You have made the facility that you work at successful because of the passion that you have for the people that are in it.  I’ve been in there.  I’ve seen you treat them with humility.  You treat them as citizens who have made incorrect choices but you want nothing but the best for them.”  She added that it was frustrating to see the Moorhead Representative Heather Keeler signed onto the bill as a sponsor. 

According to Mongeau, Moorhead’s WCRJC treats the residents in a holistic way to allow them a better life moving forward, making it one of the most highly regarded facilities in northwest Minnesota.  Youth attend local schools to keep up with school work and families can visit their children without undertaking long trips.  She cautioned that although minor-offender numbers are diminishing, major-offenders committed to WCRJC are increasing in number and the offenses committed are more serious, though the center maintains its success rate.   

Mongeau said, “Without your facility, these kids would have to be in a far harsher environment. I certainly feel it is our duty as a board and the WCRJC board to reach out to those co-sponsors on the bill to let them know that we are not sticking a kid in a room and forgetting about them.  We are doing all that we can to help rehabilitate a child.” The WCRJC board passed a resolution asking legislators to hold off on passing the bill until they have visited local facilities and met with staff and residents. The Clay County board resolved to contact Clay County senators and representatives with their concerns.

Commissioner David Ebinger, drawing on his past experience in law enforcement and his professional experience with WCRJC, said, “I have no doubt that this was well-intended. Legislative bodies have got to learn to talk to the experts before they make decisions, to talk to the people who do the work before they decide.”

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