Public prefers close-to-home solutions
By Marcy Stamper
Okanogan County’s juvenile-detention facility houses up to 20 youths in 10 cells, but only half of the youths served by the county’s juvenile program actually end up in detention.
That’s because most are served by interventions such as aggression-replacement training and functional family therapy, according to Juvenile Court Administrator Dennis Rabidou.
Youths who commit minor offenses are generally not detained or even placed in a holding cell, but instead screened and released — and then followed up with tailored programs and mentoring. Some offenses, such as domestic violence, do have mandatory detention.
Detention centers in Washington were overflowing in the 1990s before the state switched in 1998 to a range of evidence-based programs that emphasize education and rehabilitation. Now most detention centers are only half full because the philosophy has been effective, said Rabidou. In Okanogan, they serve 700 to 800 kids each year, he said.
All counties throughout the state follow certain protocols, such as finding diversion programs for juveniles who commit minor offenses. The counties take the approach that kids made a mistake and — if they stay out of trouble, they never even enter the system, said Rabidou.
When Rabidou became administrator in 2009 — after first serving as corrections manager for the facility — he introduced aggression-replacement therapy (ART) and functional family therapy. “These are evidence based, they work, and they save taxpayers money,” he said.
While the county’s facility is aging, major repairs were made and the roof fixed several years ago, said Rabidou.
Rabidou said there had been good support from the previous board of commissioners for a $19.5 million justice complex to replace the county’s 42-year-old juvenile facility and parts of the courthouse. The current board also supported the plan when they first came into office, but they didn’t get financial support from the state and have started to look at other options.
Those include sending juveniles to Martin Hall, a maximum-security facility near Spokane. The commissioners will also look at options closer to home, such as the Chelan County facility in Wenatchee.
If the facility in Okanogan closes, kids would be transferred to the other detention center and then brought back for a court appearance and meetings with attorneys and probation officers.
Martin Hall is run by a consortium of nine eastern Washington counties, who got together in 1995 because they didn’t have their own facilities. The counties signed a 50-year agreement and are obligated to pay for a certain number of beds per month. No member can withdraw without a unanimous vote, according to according to Scott Hutsell, a Lincoln County commissioner and chair of the Martin Hall consortium board.
‘Kids are kids’
Darla Ehrhard, Okanogan County’s ART program facilitator, teaches social skills, anger control and moral reasoning to 12 kids at a time. The program meets three days a week for 10 weeks, and kids focus on communication skills, learn to understand the feelings of others, and to cope with anger. Each year, three dozen youths go through the ART program.
“Kids are kids,” said Ehrhard. “If they slip up, we stay on them and they stay in the program.”
Some kids even go through the ART program more than once. “Lots of kids have so many things going on that they can’t figure them out,” said Ehrhard. “There are enough youths with enough issues that they stay involved with the juvenile system longer than we would like.”
Okanogan County is unique — the only county in the state — to combine chemical-dependency intervention with the ART program, said Ehrhard.
County juvenile administrators are keeping statistics about the effectiveness of the combined program, which will ultimately be submitted to the state for official consideration as another evidence-based program, said Rabidou.
The philosophy in the juvenile system is the least-restrictive environment. “There’s a big difference between the adult and juvenile system,” said Rabidou. “We talk to the kid and find out what’s going on.” Some kids are living on the street, or have substance-abuse or mental-health issues, he said.
Rabidou said he can relate to the kids because he left home at age 16 and lived on the streets. He later served in the military and considered law school, before coming to the county as the corrections manager.
Juveniles come into the detention facility through an intake room where they are restrained in hand and leg cuffs until they are searched.
Cells have two metal beds attached to the walls, a metal sink and toilet, and a metal desk/chair unit.
The facility relies on a highly structured schedule and activities. Breakfast is at 5:45 a.m. and lights are out at 10 p.m.
There are four levels of restriction, eased with length of stay and good behavior. Kids start out with no privileges, a deck of cards, and a basket of basic toiletries. After several days, they get more rec time and personal-care products from home. The highest level grants them radios and handheld games.
There is indoor and outdoor recreation for kids who qualify, including TV and basketball and a place to write letters or do homework.
For many, having access to hygiene facilities and laundry — and being away from drugs and alcohol — makes the situation feel safe, said Rabidou.
Set visiting hours are on weekends, but other times are arranged if necessary to accommodate a parent’s schedule, said Rabidou.
School is five hours a day in a sort of one-room schoolhouse. Roy Johnson, a teacher with the Okanogan School District, provides individualized instruction for kid at levels from elementary school through college.
With a background as a corrections officer, Johnson is attuned to safety issues. “We count pencils and use blunt scissors, and no paper clips or staples,” he said.
The school has computers and e-readers, which kids with privileges can check out at night to play math and word games.
Okanogan was the first juvenile facility in the state to offer GED testing, said Johnson. The ability to award a GED is valuable because the county may lose track of kids after they leave, said Johnson. This way youths are set up for a job or more education, he said.
“This is a short stay. We do everything we can do to connect the kids with resources and services and send them back out in a positive situation,” said Rabidou.
Youths convicted of serious crimes are sent to another detention facility to serve a longer sentence, he said.
Public: ‘No’ on Martin Hall
The Okanogan County commissioners have been holding public meetings and seeking feedback about juvenile detention options. To date, they have received 31 letters from members of the public and judges, therapists and school administrators. All but one letter urged the commissioners to keep youths close to home where they are near their families and can receive a continuum of services.
“We as parents know that the best influence on our children is and always will be ourselves. That is true whether our child is standing atop a podium in honor or victory, or struggling to make it through life’s simplest daily challenges,” wrote one person.
“Instead of looking to get rid of the Okanogan Juvenile Detention Center you should be looking into more services for the youth. They are our priority. They are our future,” wrote another.
The superintendent of the Omak School District wrote, “When I say that replacing the buildings is the easy part, I am comparing that to replacing the kids … Sending our offending youth to another community gets them out of an aging facility, but it also gets them out of sight, out of mind, out of their families, and into the prison pipeline. Is that what you are after here?”
The one person who wrote in support of the switch to Martin Hall said she moved to Omak from a big city thinking it would be a good place to raise kids. “They all didn’t turn out so good,” she wrote. “I had one that every time he ended up in the jail it was basically not scary at all because he got to go with all of the other delinquent little punks he got in trouble with … Even the prison system is club med for these guys.”
A group of students at the Independent Learning Center in Twisp were moved to research the issue and write their own letter to the commissioners after reading an article in the Methow Valley News. They were concerned about the impact of the long trip and what seemed like disproportionate treatment. “To be in leg shackles and a maximum-security facility for missing school?” said junior Isabella Oborne about their reason for becoming involved.
The students said it was difficult to imagine that people they know would be sent so far away. “It would exclude the people most at risk in our community,” said junior Trevor Ratchey.