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Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center, a juvenile corrections facility for boys in Golden, is surrounded by a 16-foot fence with anti-climbing mesh. It is operated by the Colorado Department of Human Services. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

GOLDEN — Colorado’s most troubled youth corrections center, where several teens and staff were injured in a riot last spring and where a new report found rampant drug use, will undergo a physical transformation this year. 

The massive complex — surrounded by mesh fence that bends inward to prevent escape — will become four separate youth centers, and kids will mingle only among the same small group as they attend school, meals and therapy sessions. Their cells will look more like bedrooms and their living spaces will have comfortable furniture instead of hard, prison-issue couches and chairs.

Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center also will have not only drug-sniffing dogs but wands to screen visitors, youths and staff for contraband, part of a nearly $2 million state budget request to revamp the center.

The plans, described Thursday by four officials from the Colorado Department of Human Services and the youth corrections division, follow a spring fraught with assaults and escapes. And they come after an outside review of the facility found the root causes of the trouble were illegal drugs inside the center, a facility that was too large, and a culture that was too much like an adult prison. The youth corrections system includes 10 state-run centers for kids as young as 10 and youth up to 21, if they were convicted as juveniles.

Department officials initially said they would not release the full review — and previously denied an open records request from The Colorado Sun — but reversed course a few hours after Thursday’s press conference, which included multiple questions about the secrecy of the report. Department spokesman Mark Techmeyer said he would release a redacted version of the report in about three weeks. 

The report, which cost the state $24,234 and came from the Council of Juvenile Justice Administrators, included interviews with incarcerated youth and staff at Lookout. Human services officials, in initially refusing to release it, said they were concerned it could further strain morale and retention of staff at the center. (The review found staff turnover at Lookout is about 42%.)

The department’s turnabout came as the Division of Youth Services is under heavy scrutiny — particularly regarding transparency — from the Office of the Child Protection Ombudsman and ACLU Colorado.

New walls and furniture can help change culture, but problems within the youth corrections system are much bigger than aesthetics, said Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte, who is hoping to change state law regarding how Youth Services makes decisions regarding discipline, restraints and treatment.

“What we want to see is a change in the underlying foundation of how they do business,” she said. “There is a lack of transparency and accountability and that has led to children and staff being harmed.”

A common room outside a boys’ pod in the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center in Golden. Colorado’s Division of Youth Services transformed spaces in 2018 to appear more like a home than a correctional facility as part of a pilot project. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Villafuerte wants the division to overhaul the way it makes decisions — namely by making it a more public process in which juvenile advocates have input. “Until those policy changes are in place, we have not gone far enough for the children of Colorado,” she said. 

A report from the state’s child protection ombudsman last summer slammed the Division of Youth Services for making policies in secret. Unlike many other state agencies, the division develops its rules internally among staff and did not allow for input from the community, the ombudsman or policymakers.

The most egregious example in the ombudsman’s report involves a device called “the Wrap,” similar to a strait jacket and used until 2018 to restrain children and teens in lockup. The division announced two years ago that it was suspending use of the Wrap following outcry and a damning report from Colorado Child Safety Coalition, which found the state had used the device 253 times in a 13-month period. 

The announcement by the Colorado Department of Human Services that it would end use of the restraint known as the Wrap was met with praise by state lawmakers, the ACLU and the ombudsman. But, as the ombudsman would learn months later through citizens’ complaints, the department had not in fact stopped restraining kids — it had switched to a new “dangerous, violent, mechanical” device, the ombudsman found. 

Youth services officials had shifted to using a “new and only slightly modified technique” called the “sidehold,” which includes a helmet, handcuffs and ankle straps, Villafuerte found during her review. Use of the new device was approved internally, without any public input or notice given to lawmakers or juvenile advocates, she found. 

Since the ombudsman’s report, the Division of Youth Services created a “policy update” page where people can submit their email addresses to receive notification about policy changes. But Villafuerte says that’s not enough. She called on the division to adhere to the State Administrative Procedure Act, which provides a roadmap for how state agencies should set rules and policies, seek public comment and stakeholder input.

In response, the department said its policies “do not constitute rules” as defined by the act so it does not need to follow that process.

Minna Castillo Cohen has led the state Office of Children, Youth and Families since November 2017. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

At the press conference Thursday, Minna Castillo Cohen, state director of Children, Youth and Families, said the youth corrections system will include stakeholders in policy decisions when it makes sense, but that it doesn’t always make sense. The division doesn’t need “seven months of input” about whether to change guards’ work attire, for example, she said. 

But as it stands now, the ombudsman said, the division can create policy one day and change it another without any input from youth advocates — as was done with the Wrap.

“What is really concerning is that these kids are literally locked behind closed doors,” Villafuerte said. “There are no eyes and ears on these kids. Nobody knows what’s going on until it’s too late, and that has to stop.”

The youth corrections system in Colorado has been fraught with problems for years, and Lookout Mountain in Golden has been the most high profile. 

Lookout, which is only for boys who have already been sentenced, had a string of bad happenings beginning last spring. 

There was a riot in May involving more than 20 youth and staff members. Also in May, two “violent sex offenders with gang affiliations,” ages 17 and 19, escaped from Lookout. 

Two other youths escaped last spring — one in April and another in June. Plus, there was a gang fight in May in which three staff members were injured, and a Lookout employee was arrested in April for sexual exploitation of a child. 

The Colorado Sun last fall requested eight “critical incident reports” from Lookout Mountain under open records laws, documents that would provide context to what occurred at the center last spring. The department refused to release six of the reports, saying they were exempt from release because they involved juveniles. The state released just two reports, which were mostly redacted. 

Division officials at the press conference Thursday did not say how drugs got into the facility. When asked whether staff members were caught supplying drugs, officials said they could not discuss personnel matters and that any staff member suspected of wrongdoing is reported to law enforcement.

The plans to overhaul Lookout are the latest in several years of efforts to reduce assaults and solitary confinement, and disrupt the pipeline from youth detention to adult prison. 

State law passed in 2017 ordered sweeping changes to the division, including changing its name from Youth Corrections to Youth Services. The reform was meant to change the culture, including making the atmosphere more therapeutic. Many of the youth who are locked up previously spent time in foster care or lived through traumatic events that require mental health treatment. 

By the following year, division officials reported that assaults were down and that fewer youth were spending time in solitary confinement, so much so that seclusion cells in some centers were transformed into relaxation rooms with soft furniture. 

A desk inside a bedroom at Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center, a juvenile correction facility for boys in Golden. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Included in the previous reform was a $160,000 pilot project run by the nonprofit Missouri Youth Services Institute, which transformed one of the pods at Lookout Mountain into a softer, home-like living space. The pilot is 18 months in and will last three years, said Division of Youth Services director Anders Jacobson. 

Under the current reform, Lookout is dropping its capacity to 112 kids with 160 staff from about 150 kids with about 250 staff. Youths will live in pods with 10 to 12 beds, and in one of four centers with 16 to 36 kids each. 

Making the environment more homelike fits with the division’s mission to rehabilitate young people, Jacobson said. 

“The punishment for them has already happened,” he said. “They have already been taken out of their home and out of their community. Our calling is really education, treatment, and in many cases, reintegration back to the family.”

The reforms go beyond Lookout, said Michelle Barnes, executive director of the state Human Services Department. “We are doubling down on culture change at all of our facilities,” she said.

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of Montana, before moving on to reporting jobs in Texas and Oklahoma. She worked...