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Jenna Gibson was 15 years old when she had a life-changing moment.
Gibson was nearing the end of her second stint at Southern Oaks Girls School, a juvenile correctional facility in rural Racine County. She began to wonder if she was compounding her own problems. "I thought, 'Maybe I should look at this differently,'" she says. During most of her first and second terms at the facility, she saw Southern Oaks as "a negative thing because [I wasn't] at home or on the street," she says, "doing what [I] wanted to do."
But Gibson realized a rebellious attitude might be holding her back. "You have to wake up and say, 'Something needs to change in my life.'"
Despite the awakening, a third stint at Southern Oaks followed her second. But it was during this final term that she opened up and dug into the services available to her.
Like the two boys-only correctional facilities in the state - the larger Ethan Allen School in Waukesha County and the Lincoln Hills School north of Wausau - the girls school was like a prison for kids.
And like the grownup convicts, Gibson and the other kids at the facilities had committed crimes. Today, they are reluctant to discuss the specifics of their charges. Privacy laws protect their disclosure, but Gibson, now 23 and living in Middleton, offers that she fell in with the "wrong crowd," skipped school and, at one point, stole a car.
But Southern Oaks wasn't a prison like Waupun or Taycheedah, the state's sprawling adult facilities. The emphasis on social services, counseling and education was paramount. The language was different. These were not "crimes" or "prisons" but "law violations" and "schools."
Today, only Lincoln Hills, located near the town of Irma, remains. In late June, the state Department of Corrections announced it had officially closed Southern Oaks and Ethan Allen, leaving only the northern Wisconsin facility, which is 170 miles from Madison and 220 miles from Milwaukee. A new addition to Lincoln Hills, the separate Copper Lake School, will house girls.
Experts say the facility's distance from Madison, Milwaukee and other urban areas in southern Wisconsin, where the majority of its juveniles will hail from, intensifies challenges for the department, including maintaining family relationships, transporting juveniles to court appointments and increasing staff diversity.
The closures were inevitable - the number of kids committed to the state's juvenile correctional facilities had dwindled so low that by the beginning of this year, the boys schools were operating only at about a third of capacity, and Southern Oaks was down to 20%.
Meanwhile, the department's Division of Juvenile Corrections was running a large deficit. A new Republican governor urging fiscal restraint, Scott Walker, had just taken office. He announced the state's plan to shutter Ethan Allen and Southern Oaks in a March budget address. The move was expected to save $23 million a year.
Despite finally coming to pass under Walker, the closures had been long in the making. Counties had pushed the department to reduce the daily rates they pay to the state to place kids in correctional facilities. Doing so meant cutting costs in a big way. And in 2010, a commission appointed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle voted 5-3 to do so by closing Ethan Allen.
The closures signal a sea change in how the state responds to some of its most troubled youth, one that's been in the making for many years. It's a reflection of judges' reluctance to incarcerate troubled teenagers when community-based programs are less expensive, potentially more effective and keep the kids closer to home. And the closures also signal the ever-more-important role such programs are playing in Madison and around Wisconsin.
Gibson's story suggests a larger trend: Although her time at Southern Oaks was ultimately beneficial, she later felt adrift as a young adult. "I didn't really know what I wanted to do," she says.
At the suggestion of her father, Gibson enrolled in Operation Fresh Start, a Madison-based program offering job training, educational and counseling services to youth and young adults. More than a year later, she has a High School Equivalency Diploma and is looking for placement as a carpenter's apprentice. It was a community-based program that ultimately helped prepare her for adulthood.
Experts suggest the closures could encourage counties to innovate and further exploit such alternative programs instead of committing kids to Lincoln Hills. Or consolidating all operations in a single North Woods facility could be a step backward by further distancing many kids from their families and the community support they need to succeed after their release.
In recent history, Dane County has placed the second-highest number of juveniles in the corrections system each year, behind Milwaukee County, which accounts for almost half of all commitments. Kenosha, Racine and Rock counties, all located in southeastern Wisconsin, follow closely behind Dane County as the third-, fourth- and fifth-largest sources of juveniles committed to the system.
The Juvenile Corrections Review Committee, the panel appointed by Doyle to study the possibility of closing Ethan Allen or Lincoln Hills, found that about 70% of youths placed in corrections come from "the southeast quadrant of the state" (including Dane County).
The panel of 11, composed of judges, human services professionals and nonprofit leaders, noted in its final report, "Location near where youth and families live is a substantial factor in promoting successful reentry.... The distance from [Lincoln Hills] to where a sizable portion of youth comes from complicates reentry."
The report added, however, that the harm may be minimized by "the advent of shorter stays" in juvenile corrections facilities. Not only are fewer kids being sent to the boys and girls schools, but they're getting out sooner, too.
Some of the committee members said kids "may actually benefit from a [Lincoln Hills] commitment simply because it is a considerable distance away from their home environment, providing youth the opportunity to reflect on their personal behaviors and provide the incentive to return to their community by successfully completing their program."
Jim Moeser, former juvenile court administrator for Dane County and deputy director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, served as cochair of the juvenile corrections committee. He voted to close Ethan Allen but says today of Lincoln Hills, "Being that far away from where most of the kids are is a huge, huge factor.... The department will have to work extra hard to overcome those barriers."
Scott Strong is executive director of Community Partnerships, a Madison nonprofit that operates the Children Come First program, tasked with stabilizing children's "mental health, emotional and behavioral needs" to avoid commitments to correctional facilities, residential homes or psychiatric units. The program, funded in part by the Dane County Department of Human Services, "wraps" services around kids in an attempt to avoid such placements.
Strong says of the distance to Lincoln Hills: " That's a long way to go. Keeping that connection with their son or daughter is going to be really difficult.... I think we need to put more energy into stabilizing families. Funding tends to follow the kid."
Strong says the county devised the program, which also receives Medicaid funding, in the late 1980s. Judges and other officials sought to curtail the money the county was shelling out for psychiatric hospitalization while improving outcomes. Today, Children Come First serves 150 to 160 Dane County kids at any one time.
According to Strong, the program is inexpensive, costing $3,400 a month instead of $10,000 a month for placement in a residential group home or some other facility. Judges use the program to divert kids from the boys and girls schools. Strong says families are sometimes given a choice " enroll in Children Come First or go to corrections.
Dane County also contracts with Youth Services of Southern Wisconsin, another Madison nonprofit. Following court orders, it supervises juveniles, monitoring their school attendance, adherence to curfews and participation in various groups offered by the organization. According to Jay Kiefer, the program's director, about 94% of kids who underwent this "intensive supervision" in 2010 remained at home, and about 96% didn't commit a new law violation.
The county supported closing one of the major juvenile correctional facilities, Ethan Allen or Lincoln Hills, but didn't lobby in favor of one or the other, according to Lynn Green, director of the county Human Services Department. The alternative was a potentially astronomical rise in the daily rate paid by counties to house kids in the facilities.
The distance to Lincoln Hills is "not ideal," she says, adding that "Ethan Allen wasn't just down the block. You can't just take public transportation to get there." And some Dane County juveniles were already being placed at Lincoln Hills, she adds, prior to the closure of Ethan Allen. "For a lot of families, this won't be a change."
John Ourada, deputy superintendent of Lincoln Hills, estimates that prior to the merger, about 40% of the school's kids were already coming from southeastern Wisconsin.
The juvenile corrections committee made a surprising discovery when it looked into visitation rates at Lincoln Hills and Ethan Allen - they weren't much different at the Waukesha County facility. According to the report, the committee "received some differing data regarding visitation, some suggesting there is little difference in visitation rates...and other data suggesting higher levels of visitation" at Ethan Allen.
The Department of Corrections began preparing for the merger in earnest following Walker's address in March. Boys and girls from Ethan Allen and Southern Oaks were moved in sections, ending in June. The new Copper Lake School is separated from the much larger Lincoln Hills boys school by a 1,300-foot-long, 14-foot-high covered fence.
In a May interview, Lincoln Hills superintendent Paul Westerhaus told the Wausau Daily Herald, "I feel really good with where we are at and what we've done. We're right on track."
Green, who serves on a committee that advises the Department of Corrections on juvenile corrections issues, says the department has put forth a good effort in consolidating the facilities under "a very tight time frame.... It's been a very impressive process."
About 300 employees at Ethan Allen and Southern Oaks received layoff notices in March. By May, about a third of them had transferred to new jobs at Lincoln Hills (which added more than a hundred during the consolidation) or elsewhere in the department.
Although preparations began earlier this year, the merger wasn't cemented until Walker signed the 2011-13 state budget in late June. It included a slight increase in the daily rate paid by counties intended, along with the closures, to eliminate the state's deficit in juvenile corrections within a decade.
During the state Legislature's uncharacteristically brief budget debate in mid-June (due to the Republican leadership calling an extraordinary session), the closures were approved with little debate. Three Democratic state representatives from Milwaukee - Leon Young, Jason Fields and Elizabeth Coggs - introduced an amendment that would have kept open all three facilities, Ethan Allen, Southern Oaks and Lincoln Hills. But, like other amendments offered by Democrats, it was tabled and never brought to a vote.
State Rep. Kelda Helen Roys (D-Madison) said later, "The mentality seems to be slash and burn.... We know it's critical to have strong family and community support and ties if we want to help young offenders take the right path. To the extent they're going to be in a place now that's further away...it's going to make it more difficult for them to succeed."
The department is aware of the transportation issues created by the consolidation. Transporting youth back and forth between counties for court appointments and other needs will continue to be a partnership between county sheriff's departments and the state, but the department has already amped up its offerings. Ourada says Lincoln Hills now has three "trip units," essentially vans, that can be used to transport kids.
The department is also expanding a bus service for family members from once a month to once a week. The buses, which will start in Milwaukee, will stop in Madison every other week on the way to Lincoln Hills. (They will swing through the Fox Cities during the other week.)
The facility is also equipped with videoconferencing technology, allowing parents to have virtual visitations with their kids when a trip to Irma isn't possible. The technology can be used for court appointments, allowing juveniles to appear in Dane County or other court proceedings remotely.
And the department will continue offering "Aftercare" services to counties, such as Dane County, that purchase them instead of providing their own, similar services. During Aftercare, kids just released from corrections stay in their family home, a relative's home or a residential facility but remain under supervision. The goal is a successful reentry.
A better environment?
The members of the juvenile corrections committee agreed: It wasn't feasible to keep both Ethan Allen and Lincoln Hills open. As the committee requested information from both facilities, toured them and sorted through the pros and cons of each over the course of seven meetings, many of the members began to favor Lincoln Hills' programming and atmosphere.
The committee's report noted "a level of dysfunction and conflict among and between a few [Ethan Allen] staff members that has had a negative effect on the educational processes there." Staff at the facility filed 109 formal grievances in 2009. Staff at Lincoln Hills filed none in that year. The committee also found that youth were about twice as likely to file complaints at Ethan Allen than at Lincoln Hills.
"It seemed the atmosphere at Lincoln Hills was a little more relaxed and normative for kids," says Moeser. A point favoring Ethan Allen was the relative diversity of its staff. The committee said that both facilities are "nowhere near as diverse as the youth population," but this was especially true at Lincoln Hills.
"The population of people working up there is pretty white," says Community Partnerships' Strong. Some of the committee members thought that at whatever facility survived, staff should more closely resemble the juvenile population being held there. In 2009, more than 60% of the juveniles committed to corrections in Wisconsin were African American.
In the end, the committee voted to close Ethan Allen and consolidate operations at Lincoln Hills. The motion also called for the department to create a reentry facility in southern Wisconsin, possibly at Southern Oaks, where kids would be transferred near the end of their commitments, but the department has not announced any plans to create such a facility.
For now, Ethan Allen and Southern Oaks will sit vacant. The state's plans for them are unclear, but the new state budget includes $3.5 million to maintain the facilities over the next two years.
'You can make kids worse'
When it debated Walker's plan for juvenile corrections, the state Legislature's Joint Finance Committee extended the period kids could be placed in county juvenile detention facilities from 30 days to six months. Milwaukee County had pushed for the change, hoping to create a local program at its juvenile detention facility that could serve as an alternative to Lincoln Hills.
John Bauman, juvenile court administrator for Dane County, says he's been discussing the possibility of creating such a program in this county. But, he says, "It's questionable whether or not it makes sense for us.... It would take a considerable amount of money."
Creating a large number of local facilities capable of serving kids during long-term correctional placements is called the "Missouri Model" in the world of juvenile corrections. That state's system, built over the course of decades, relies on small facilities that keep kids close to home. The downside to such an approach is that it's expensive to get started.
Moeser says the extension added by Joint Finance could be "the start of a potentially good idea or a potentially bad idea, depending on how it's implemented." Counties would need to add extensive educational, psychiatric, health care and vocational services to their juvenile detention facilities to create viable alternatives to Lincoln Hills. Setting up a new program "on the cheap" could fail. According to Moeser, "You can make kids worse."
The new state budget also includes a 10% reduction in Youth Aids - the money given to counties to spend on either correctional placements or local programs. The cut could hamper the development of new, Missouri Model-style programs in this state. Wisconsin created the Youth Aids system in the early 1980s to encourage the development of local alternatives to corrections. "The reduction is going to continue to squeeze the system and result in fewer resources for kids and families," says Bauman.
Still, Moeser sees community-based programs and other local services continuing to play an important roles in juvenile corrections. "Counties are becoming more successful and strategic in intervening with kids," he says.
But for all the strategies, funding formulas and nonprofit contractors, former Southern Oaks inmate Jenna Gibson offers a simple recommendation for kids in trouble with the law: Find someone who believes in you. For her, it was a probation officer.
And don't be afraid to lose a few friends, she adds. "You can't change the people you hang out with, just yourself."
'Wraparound' programs: A success story
Tyrel Rouse says he was one of the lucky kids who managed to stay out of a Wisconsin juvenile correctional facility. "I never made it to Ethan Allen, but many friends did," he says. "I certainly could have."
Between the ages of 11 and 19, Rouse bounced in and out of adolescent psychiatric units, juvenile detention and a foster home. He suffers from schizoaffective disorder, a condition combining the mood instability of bipolar disorder with the delusions of schizophrenia.
As a teenager, Rouse, born to a middle-class home on Madison's west side, used marijuana, cocaine and other drugs. A judge never saw fit to commit him to corrections, possibly because his parents were supportive. "They cared, even though they didn't know what to do or how to do it," he says. For a time, Rouse was also under the watchful eye of a community-based "wraparound" program.
The program, Children Come First, run by the Madison nonprofit Community Partnerships, "wraps" a multitude of services around kids to prevent an out-of-home placement such as Ethan Allen.
Rouse, now 28 and still living in Madison, eventually stabilized and stayed clean. Today, he's a kung fu instructor with an associate degree in human services and a new gem and jewelry business.