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Workers kicked and bitten

State maintains Spring Creek is improving



When a social worker checked on a Spring Creek Youth Center detainee around noon on Aug. 13, the youth struck him twice in the head and bit his left arm, according to a police report.

The same detainee is accused of assaulting three other staffers in the last six weeks, two of whom also were bitten, police reports say. Most recently, on Aug. 17, when four staffers tried to restrain a youth, one worker was kicked in the head, chest and leg; he was also bitten and sought treatment at Memorial Hospital, the police report says.

Those incidents are among about a dozen assaults at Springs Creek to which police have responded in the last couple months. And that doesn't include an Aug. 7 melee that injured six staffers, including director Dave Maynard, and led to charges of assault and engaging in a riot against seven kids ("Search for pencil ends in riot," News, Aug. 13, 2014).

Which raises questions about whether changes at the facility are working.

In an interview, Al Estrada, director of the Colorado Department of Human Services Division of Youth Corrections, says things don't rebound overnight. "We are working on things, and we are making progress," he says, "and we will continue to see progress at that facility."

High turnover

Spring Creek is an 80-bed facility that opened in 1998. It holds male and female youths ages 10 to 20 who are facing criminal charges or have been committed to serve time for crimes.

The state won't release incident reports, but the Independent obtained data from the state that suggest a link between staffing levels and staff injuries.

Spring Creek has been understaffed since at least 2009. It reached its lowest point in fiscal year 2013-14, which ended June 30, with 68.5 full-time-equivalent workers, nearly five short of the number authorized. That year also saw the highest turnover when the full-time equivalent of 22 workers left, compared with eight in 2009-10.

Spring Creek workers filed 132 workers' compensation claims from 2009 through May this year, with 60 of those filed in calendar year 2013 alone. From January through May 2014, 14 claims were filed.

To compare, Zeb Pike Youth Center, at 1427 W. Rio Grande Ave., is a 36-bed, all-male facility that serves ages 12 to 20. Zeb Pike, with roughly half the number of staff as Spring Creek, has been short-staffed only two years since 2009. One of those years was 2011-12, when the facility hit its highest turnover rate by losing 16 people. In the last six years, 48 workers have filed workers' comp claims there.

Using restraint

Although the state earlier this year altered how staffers can physically manage juveniles — banning radial (forearm) strikes, for example — Human Services Department spokesman Dan Drayer says the change "does not create a risk for staff because they have a cadre of tools to employ, including physical management, even if specific interventions may no longer be approved for usage." State policy allows use of soft and metal restraints under certain conditions.

A transgender male who identifies as female is accused of four assaults on staff since July 5, including the three biting incidents described in this story. The youth, whose parents live in Denver, initially was housed in the male section but later was moved to the female section, police reports say. It hasn't been disclosed when the move occurred.

DHS officials say they can't discuss specific cases, but Estrada says each youth is assessed individually before decisions are made for where he or she is housed.

"In general," DHS spokeswoman Liz McDonough says via email, "a room assignment is dependent on both the needs of the youth, as well as the safety and security of youth and staff within the facility."

Culture change

Estrada says that besides bringing Maynard aboard in June, he's trying "to change a culture." He says more than 75 percent of the state's incarcerated youths have experienced trauma, including abuse and neglect.

"People in the public see youth corrections and bad kids. We certainly see the criminal behavior these youth have displayed, but we also understand there's a person behind that, and that that person usually has been damaged in some way. What we're working on doing is trying to better understand what triggers these incidents. Oftentimes it's past trauma."

The division, he says, is "moving toward a sanctuary model ... it's about helping to infuse the perspective of trauma-informed care in our system, whereby we might be able to do more to mitigate these [violent incidents]."

Estrada says to enable a culture shift, the population at Spring Creek has been reduced to 51 detainees awaiting resolution of criminal cases and 10 youths already sentenced.

"Overall, we're simply spending more time in the facility, talking with staff, trying to talk with youth," he says. "We have a whole new school program that we're looking at starting in the next couple of weeks. Bringing in a new contractor is a big deal."

Harrison School District 2 will take over instruction next month, because Colorado Springs School District 11 ended its long-time contract with Spring Creek in May. Some teachers have cited safety concerns.

"We feel that a large part of what was missing prior was a good relationship with D-11," Estrada says. "That was allowed to stagnate, if you will."

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