Missouri’s juvenile program was hailed as a model for the nation. What happened?

Tribune Content Agency

ST. LOUIS — Starting well before Harvard championed the program with a government innovation award in 2008, officials nationwide have been traveling to the Show-Me State to take notes on the “Missouri model” of juvenile justice.

They come to see therapy prioritized over punishment. They come to see where people committed to state custody from juvenile court hold each other accountable while living together in community-based cottages instead of prison settings.

And they come to meet staff who believe there’s no such thing as a bad kid — that challenging behavior is an indicator of an unmet need.

But there’s no chance to meet Brittney Wixon anymore at Missouri’s legendary Division of Youth Services.

“You couldn’t pay me enough pay to work for DYS again,” said the former teacher there. “The constant threats and sexual remarks that nothing was done about.”

DYS went off course during the COVID-19 pandemic and tipped over. Director Scott Odum, who has risen through the ranks, said he’s still trying to “right-size” the agency. Annual turnover has always been high, yet hit 48% in the agency’s most recent budget request. That’s too high to maintain the right culture in facilities like Hogan Street Regional Youth Center in Old North St. Louis that have struggled with escapes.

What’s more, DYS started steadily shrinking well before the pandemic. The number of youths committed to the agency dropped from 1,205 in 2005 to 483 in 2022. Eleven DYS facilities — a third statewide — closed since 2013, including Babler Lodge in Wildwood; Spanish Lake Cottage and Discovery Hall in Bellefontaine Neighbors; and Montgomery City Youth Center in Montgomery City.

Hillsboro Treatment Center, which opened to fanfare in 1999 as a modern facility in Jefferson County, is technically still on the books. There’s nobody there, following staffing struggles and what one former employee described as riots.

Lawmakers recently approved $7.2 million in new spending to replace Hogan Street, which has hunkered inside the former St. Liborious Catholic Church school since 1974. Republican Gov. Mike Parson is poised to approve the appropriation in his budget later this month.

Hogan Street, one of three high-security DYS facilities statewide, typically has three groups of 8 to 10 people living in separate dorms. They’ve been down to one group of about 13 for months. The Missouri system wasn’t built for one group. It’s problematic when, for instance, opposing gang members who hate each other can’t be moved to a different group to ease tensions on site.

Juveniles have always run from confinement. But there were eight escapes or attempted escapes from Hogan Street between January 2020 and November 2022, according to records from St. Louis police. Last June, an 18-year-old attempting escape with opioids in his system either jumped or fell from a busted-out third-story window. He was rushed to a hospital with serious injuries. In 2021, five boys were accused of forcing their way out and taking two cars that belonged to staff members.

Across the state in late 2020 at another high-security DYS facility, one of half a dozen youths who escaped from Riverbend Treatment Center in St. Joseph was killed during a shootout stemming from a stolen vehicle incident.

Three youths leading an April tour of Hogan Street said they hadn’t been outside the old maroon brick building — not even to stretch their legs at an adjoining fenced-in field — other than to go to the doctor or dentist appointments.

“You’ve got to explore the world,” one of them who’d been in DYS custody two years said of his desires once released. “When you see the world, it expands the mind, because you don’t know if there is something else out there other than just St. Louis.”

Until then, Melissa Sickmund, who recently retired as director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh, said by telephone that the adjoining field should be used.

“If they don’t have large muscle exercise, they aren’t kids,” she said. “It’s part of being healthy. You have to view the whole person.”

Muata Foluke, 55, who has lived directly across from Hogan Street 15 years, said he doesn’t see anybody outside.

“Regardless of whatever crime they did, I think it’s a little inhumane for them not to be able to see sunlight,” he said.

Missouri officials know that more freedom and opportunities mean better outcomes in the long run.

Odum said multiple variables play into activities being restricted at Hogan Street, including a shortage of seasoned staff, the potential risk to the community and the readiness of youths to go outside and play.

“Situationally, the impacts of the pandemic, the impacts of the labor shortage, those things have really dictated some of the terms of how we have had to operate, particularly in St. Louis, where we were the hardest hit,” Odum said. “There are a lot of efforts underway for that to be different and to migrate toward more activities.”

Out front

Before Missouri’s juvenile justice system was spotlighted as a national model, boys were sent to a huge training school in Boonville; girls went to Chillicothe. Both were prisonlike settings that had all kinds of problems.

Among the benefits of switching to small, regional cottages, staff and the people committed to their care are typically from the same area.

“The biggest thing is how the staff interact with the kids — that’s the whole thing,” said Mark Steward, who saw DYS reforms as a youth counselor and later as director of the agency from 1988 to 2005.

Some of his wisdom was gleaned from growing up on a Poplar Bluff horse farm.

“The kids will respect you, if you give a damn about them,” Steward, 76, said by telephone.

When Pope John Paul II visited St. Louis in 1999, youths from Hogan Street attended one of his main events.

“Straight down, directly out front,” Audrey Helfrich, deputy director of the DYS St. Louis region, recalled of where they sat in the audience.

Over her career, she’s noticed fewer yet older youths committed to the system.

“We were getting kids at 14 or 15 that were impressionable, and we could work with them out of the gate,” she said. “Now, when you are getting 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds, it’s hard to do that. They’ve gotten some things ingrained in them that they don’t want to let loose.”

On top of it all, there is less experience on the front lines.

When Helfrich was hired in 1993, she said, many of the other employees working the floor were seasoned practitioners of the “Missouri model.”

“It was easy to come into that and learn, and have that be just a part of who you are,” she said. “Now when you are having all these new people come at one time, you don’t have as much seniority. You have seniority at a different level.”

A former seasoned employee who worked at multiple DYS facilities in the St. Louis region before leaving said: “All the facilities were so short that people were just being thrown into the fire. When you are thrown in the fire, you just go with the flow.”

Losing control

Jessica Rosas was working in a prison for the Missouri Department of Corrections when somebody encouraged her to apply to DYS. She ended up at the Hillsboro Treatment Center during the pandemic.

She didn’t carry a gun or handcuffs. Youth specialists listen and encourage.

In the event somebody popped off like popcorn, as she described it, each person around them grabbed an arm or leg, including people in her care. An adult staff member stood at the head, another at the feet. She said they all held the person — “some of them huge” — until calm.

“You have to have trust in the kids and the kids have to have trust in you for it to work,” Rosas, 35, said from her home in De Soto.

She said trust was a major challenge once Hillsboro Treatment Center fell from three separate groups to just one. Typically, there were two youth specialists with the group per shift.

“There were too many people who hated each other,” she said of losing control. “We needed more than two people. We were afraid of a fight every single shift.”

At night, after the boys put their stuff away, she knew if a pair of shoes was missing, there were going to be problems.

“Better traction for fighting,” she said.

She said the fights grew in size. She recalled one skirmish that involved the whole group. She said there were “environmental weapons everywhere” — drawers, chairs and anything else that could be grabbed to hit with.

“A lot of people got hurt on several different occasions,” she said. “There should have been charges placed on the kids.”

She said nearly all staff ended up quitting in sequence at Hillsboro around the same time in 2021 “because we were put at risk” and inconsistencies from management.

Still, she said, “DYS is a good idea.”

“If it is set up like it’s supposed to be set up, these kids need that,” she said. “They need to fix that trauma that broke them when they were young so they can get that opportunity to be that good person and be able to love themselves.”

As Hillsboro Treatment Center shut down, some staff still with the agency commuted to St. Louis to keep Hogan Street open. One of them was Wixon, whom Rosas said was particularly good at her job as a teacher.

Youths committed to DYS custody attend school at the facility where they are placed. Many of them are below level.

Asked by telephone about the “Missouri model,” Wixon, said of being hired at DYS: “It was not presented to me as anything that I should study or be aware of.”

But she said having deep respect for her students was part of her teaching style anyway. She didn’t look at their case histories. She said she was there to educate them and “install a love of learning” regardless of their criminal backgrounds.

“They are not their charges,” said Wixon, 34, of Ballwin. “They are not what they’ve done in the past.”

One day, a student flipped a desk over.

“Explain to me, simple words are fine, why are you mad?” she recalled asking the boy. “You can flip a desk if you want. Don’t flip it in my face.”

She said she worked for DYS one year and three months, what she viewed as a major achievement. As positive as she is, even she hit her mental limit.

She’s much happier where she is now. She said a former facility manager at Hillsboro Treatment Center recruited her to work at a nonprofit.

Broken face

Russyl Royer said he lasted about six months after transitioning from Hillsboro to St. Louis, where he sensed a much different vibe at Hogan Street.

“When they had three groups, things were going well,” Royer, 51, said from his home in Fredericktown. “It’s when they started consolidating things down to one group, things went to crap.”

He said there were no visits because of COVID-19, but there was a steady flow of contraband coming in. He said people dropped stuff off for their friends and loved ones, unchecked. He said kids had laptops, gaming systems and texted with people on the outside.

He said he told upper management, which went through turnover during the pandemic.

“I told them staff was bringing stuff in,” Royer said. “They got rid of one person who was bringing in cellphones and vapes.”

He said another employee was given the option to either resign or be prosecuted.

He wasn’t working the night when somebody went out the third-story window. Royer said he saw the blood on the concrete afterwards and heard the teenager had opioids in his system that weren’t prescribed.

“The last I heard they weren’t sure he was going to walk,” Royer said. “He never did come back.”

That incident, and others, motivated Royer to put in his notice. Before his last day, in July 2022, he was attacked by a teenager trying to escape in the middle of the night. He said the boy first wanted out of the dorm to use the bathroom. When the door opened, Royer said the boy attacked him, trying to get the keys. The boy didn’t make it out of the building.

“I ended up with four broken bones in the left side of my face and a concussion,” Royer said.

He said the state paid for reconstructive surgery and other treatment.

“I try not to think about it,” he said.

He said nobody talked about the “Missouri model” in St. Louis. He said he never saw anybody go outside.

“That whole place needs to be gone,” he said. “It’s a failure.”

$46 an hour

W.E. Sears Youth Center has a different feel. It’s an open campus on 266 acres in a rural area near Poplar Bluff.

The facility has sustained its census in part by receiving some of the youths who would have been served at DYS facilities that closed in recent years, like New Madrid Bend Youth Center.

On a recent day, boys played softball outside. A group of girls in an adjoining campus were in school. Some of the youth welded. They were making freezer carts.

“Not everyone is college material,” said Ron Dixon, 52, vocational instructor. “This gives them something to fall back on that’s real skills.”

He pointed to a notch on a long metal hand railing that’s in the works for campus.

“They are not perfect,” he said. “They are doing pretty good.”

He said he got notice from one of his former students who said she was making $46 an hour welding out of state.

He said he’s also one of just two vocation instructors left at DYS. On Friday, DYS had 204 job openings, including 122 front-line positions.

New facility

As director of the Missouri Department of Social Services, Robert Knodell oversees DYS and Children’s Division, which handles the beleaguered foster care system.

Knodell has been much more accessible than his predecessor.

“If we are not transparent about where our challenges are, how in the world can I expect somebody to help us,” he said in an interview at Hogan Street. “Otherwise you are just reaching in the dark. We are not going to tell you everything is great because everything is not.”

Requests to observe DYS programs at Hogan Street beyond a tour were ultimately denied for privacy concerns.

Asked how many staff have been injured there, Odum, director of DYS, said: “We have incidents and situations where young people have made poor decisions, have accosted staff.”

Odum said they have some momentum and are turning a corner on that front.

Asked why fewer children are coming into DYS custody, he said, there are many variables that played into. He said one of them is probably a reduction in crime. Another is a philosophical difference in courts nationwide that are pursuing more abuse and neglect cases against parents, than delinquency.

Still, Odum and Knodell said they both supported replacing Hogan Street. Costs are high to maintain the HVAC system and other parts of the historic campus infrastructure. Youths with physical disabilities have to go somewhere else because it’s not ADA compliant.

A new location hasn’t been selected, nor has the governor yet approved the appropriation, although he is expected to. Knodell said the state is committed to “maintaining and growing the footprint” that DYS has in St. Louis and the St. Louis region.

“Certainly with a new facility here, we’ll be able to enhance our programming,” he said.

“A new site, a new environment, new physical plant, new opportunities on a defined campus, will certainly help us with that,” Odum added. “But it has got to be in conjunction with the right staffing. It’s got to be in conjunction with good group cultures.”