The few dozen paper ornaments hanging from the Christmas tree in the lobby of the state human services department were gone in little more than an hour last year.
Employees snatched them up, eager to buy the requested gifts: a box of diapers, a warm coat, a baby doll.
Like most other giving trees, this one’s branches were filled with the wishes of needy children. Except these were the infants, toddlers and preschoolers whose parents were locked up in youth detention centers throughout Colorado.
Tony Gherardini, deputy executive director of operations for the Colorado Department of Human Services and a father of three, plucked an ornament for an 18-month-old girl. Sitting at his desk downtown, Gherardini tapped his keyboard until he found a Minnie Mouse hat and a matching jacket on Amazon.
The ornament sat on his desk for a week as he waited for the gifts to arrive, and whenever he looked at it, the more it seemed to Gherardini like too small a gesture.
This group of babies and toddlers — separated from a parent they could visit only by entering a locked facility — was largely invisible to the human services department, which includes not only youth corrections, but the child welfare division and the state’s Office of Early Childhood.
The Division of Youth Services was doing little to help young parents serving time stay connected to their children, to maintain bonds that could influence the rest of their lives.
What came next was a revamp for youth corrections, another in a line of adjustments during the past two years aimed at transitioning the system to a more therapeutic environment rather than a hostile, punitive one. By the end of this year, before the Christmas tree returns, the department plans to offer parenting classes, expand visiting hours and transform visiting rooms from cold, clinical boxes to comfortable living rooms where teen parents can play on the floor with their kids.
The department began by surveying youth in lockup to find out how many were parents, where their babies and toddlers were living, and whether they were involved in raising them. The August survey found 25 out of 348 incarcerated youth were parents, including seven who had multiple children.
The children ranged in age from infants to 5-years old, while the young parents held by youth corrections were 17 to 20 years old. About half of the young parents reported that their kids visited regularly. One 18-year-old said his two daughters, ages 2 and 4, visited him every week.
All of the young parents were men. At the time of the survey, no girls in state-run youth centers had children. Two girls in the Division of Youth Services are pregnant, according to medical claims data gathered by the division. From 2010 to 2018, the division held 111 girls who were pregnant, including two who gave birth while in the system.
The department’s Office of Early Childhood was tasked with creating a curriculum for a parenting class. The voluntary class — for young parents held in juvenile facilities as well as all parents of youth in detention — is expected to start by the end of the year.
The Division of Youth Services also has plans to add kiosks near each center’s lobby where families can sign up for food and housing assistance, Medicaid government insurance, day-care help and Head Start preschool programs. And as part of the new policies, families with a child in a juvenile correctional center, or who are raising a child whose young parent is in a center, can receive in-home support, including parenting and budgeting guidance.
A new policy recently put in place allows families to visit seven days a week.
Workers in September were rolling blue paint on the walls at Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center’s new visiting area. The Golden facility, one of the largest in the state, also has an outdoor park where families can play.
Visiting rooms for families, including those bringing small children, were barren: cinder-block walls, visible radiators, cement floors, cold tables and chairs. The rooms soon will have carpet, comfortable furniture, paint in calming colors, and bins filled with toys, games and books.
“It’s all about the bonding, knowing I’m safe with mom or dad,” Gherardini said. “In a white room, with a little table and chairs, a child is likely going to be agitated.”
Visiting a youth services center is similar to walking into a prison. Slide identification through a slot in the window shielding an officer at the front desk. Wait between two solid doors as the first one locks before the second one will open. A mesh-draped, 16-foot fence that bends inward at the top to prevent climbing surrounds Lookout Mountain, where orderly lines of young men in matching school uniforms walk through the yard with their hands clasped behind their backs.
Colorado’s youth corrections system, with 10 state-run centers, holds kids as young as 10 and as old as 21, if they were convicted as juveniles.
The new policies are in line with the Colorado Department of Human Services’ “two-gen” philosophy, a modern tenet of social reform focused on targeting two generations for better outcomes. The revamp aims to improve the home situation for youths leaving detention, as well as increase the likelihood that a youth in lockup who is a parent maintains an emotional bond with their child.
Similarly, changes in the department’s child support-collection division last year focused on helping parents, mostly fathers, who were not paying child support enroll in job training, seek mental health care and attend parenting classes to help re-establish relationships with their kids.
For young parents, improving their relationship with their children might make the difference in whether they straighten up or return to lockup, Gherardini said.
“I hope it gives them hope for the future, a reason to be a good role model, a reason to make tough decisions,” he said. “If we can instill that sense of responsibility and pride in these folks, I hope we will make a step in the right direction.”
Youth services director Anders Jacobson said the “two-gen” approach changes the way the division looks at rehabilitation. “It matters because it expands our thinking and our service delivery to the whole family, as opposed to just focusing on the youth that are with us,” Jacobson said. “How do we focus on the greater family system to give them all help or steer them in the right direction?”
For Michael Anthony, who did two stints in juvenile facilities and is now on parole, parenthood helped him change course. He was locked up at Platte Valley Youth Services in Greeley when he became a father in July. “It helped me mature more, to know that I was going to have somebody depend on me,” Anthony said. “It helped me realize that if I wanted to do something different, I needed to change a lot of things.”
Anthony, 20, was allowed to leave lockup on a two-day pass for the birth of his daughter, Elena. He was allowed another pass after Elena came home from the hospital shortly after. “It’s a one-time thing” he didn’t want to miss, he said.
For months, Anthony’s girlfriend, Selena, who has his name tattooed on her shoulder, visited him in a chilly, sterile visiting room at Platte Valley Youth Services in Greeley. “It sucks,” she said, “seeing the person you love like that. You can’t touch him. It’s only an hour.”
Anthony, who used his middle instead of last name for this story, left Platte Valley in August and has been working for a roofing company. He and Selena, along with 2-month-old Elena, live with Selena’s grandmother.
On a recent hot September day, Anthony, who declined to talk about his juvenile record, shielded his baby’s eyes from bright sunlight and carried the girl’s flowered diaper-bag. Anthony, who grew up mostly with his dad because of his mom’s alcohol issues, wants more for his daughter: “For her parents to both be there for her,” he said.
Besides helping Anthony adjust to “daddy status,” his transition team at youth corrections helped him enroll in family therapy and fill out employment paperwork while he was still in lockup. They pushed for Anthony’s visits to meet his baby and family attendance at therapy sessions.
“I’m only temporary in his life,” said Jeremy Hall, Anthony’s parole officer. “The biggest piece is long-term sustainability, and the greatest long-term sustainable resource is family.
Research shows that young parents who “feel positive about being a parent” are less likely to return to the justice system, said Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, based at Rutgers University, Camden. She praised Colorado’s initiatives for their comprehensive approach, including offering support to the families caring for the children of incarcerated youth.
The limited research that exists on the subject shows that young children who visit their parents in correctional facilities exhibit some signs of trauma afterward, but most likely due to sadness and loss, Adalist-Estrin said. Still, even if visits cause a sense of loss in the short term, they have lifelong importance, she said.
“Visits are going to do positive things to the parent-child relationship and overall sense of lowering anxiety and improving parent-child attachment,” she said.
The first step in lowering that anxiety is the environment where visits happen, said Jacobson, who has overseen the Division of Youth Services through a period of intense scrutiny and transition. It only makes sense, he said, that young children would feel more comfortable in a “homelike environment rather than one that looks like a county jail, or quite frankly, a prison.”
“Memories say a lot of things,” he said.