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District attorneys across Colorado say they need shelter beds for juveniles who don't fit the criteria to go to a detention center. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

District attorneys across the state say Colorado has failed to provide housing for kids who cannot return home after they’ve been arrested either because they don’t have families or it’s unsafe for them to go home.

State law gives the Department of Human Services authority to provide shelter beds for kids if they have no place to go after they’ve been picked up for crimes not serious enough to justify locking them up. Except Colorado has no beds, according to a letter obtained by The Colorado Sun. 

The letter, signed by nearly every district attorney in the state and addressed to Human Services Director Michelle Barnes, is more evidence that Colorado’s behavioral health system for children is stretched beyond its limits. 

This time, the focus is on young people who’ve been accused of less-serious crimes, such as theft, but cannot be sent back to the street alone because they are juveniles.  

Until recently, those kids would go to a detention center, regardless of whether their alleged crime was severe enough to warrant lockup. But recent state and federal laws made that illegal. Instead, youths who don’t meet the criteria for being held in jail until their detention hearing are supposed to go live with family, another suitable adult or in a shelter.

Yet, despite the recent changes in law, and the state’s “statutory authority” to fund shelter beds for youth, there is no system in place, according to the letter initiated by District Attorney John Kellner, lead prosecutor for the 18th Judicial District for Douglas, Arapahoe, Elbert and Lincoln counties. 

The letter is signed by 21 of the state’s 22 district attorneys. The lone district attorney who didn’t sign it was unavailable when Kellner’s office was circulating the letter in July, Kellner said.

But the state Department of Human Services disputes that it is required to fund shelter beds. Still, department officials are exploring the request, said spokeswoman Madlynn Ruble.

In many cases, children and teens who are picked up on criminal charges are in need of some place to sleep other than youth jail. Some are in severe mental health crises and need a residential treatment program. Others need a bed in a youth homeless shelter or a few nights in a foster home. 

Instead, Kellner said, young people are sometimes sleeping on the floor of justice centers because officials have nowhere to send them. Others are brought to hospital emergency rooms for mental health care. Some sit for hours in the back of police cars while authorities figure out where to put them. 

“The gap is fairly wide between what we need and what we have,” he said in an interview this week. 

The past practice of sending kids to detention even when they didn’t need it was wrong, Kellner said. But prohibiting that practice — through a state law that went into effect in January — without providing another option is not working, he said. 

What if it’s 2 a.m. and the teen’s parent is working a night shift? “What if no parent can be found?” the district attorney asked. “The ones that concern me as a father are the kids who are in a mental health crisis and the parents don’t know how to help them.” 

Typically, the time between a juvenile’s arrest and the first court hearing is about 24 to 48 hours — too long to sleep in a county office building or go without mental health care, Kellner said. He recalled how one young person took his own life during that gap.

“We are experiencing increased youth violence, youth suicide, and youth and families struggling with an increase in behavioral health struggles at the same time that our child welfare and juvenile justice systems are experiencing significant change,” the letter says. “We are asking that CDHS move quickly to establish shelter beds for youth. The safety of our children and communities cannot wait.”

The state human services department requires authorities to use a detention screening tool on juveniles who are arrested, a process that determines whether the child needs to go to detention or could return home until their court hearing.

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)

In the past, kids could go to one of Colorado’s residential centers for foster kids with behavioral health issues. But that practice also has been outlawed. Under a new federal law called the Family First Prevention Services Act, which goes into effect this week, federal funds will no longer pay for holding young people in detention just because they have nowhere else to sleep. 

The district attorneys’ letter is similar to a letter sent this month from county human services directors statewide to the Department of Human Services citing a severe lack of psychiatric and residential treatment beds for foster kids. In that letter, county leaders said their child protection caseworkers are staying in hotels or county office buildings overnight with children because there are no treatment beds available. 

Also, kids with serious mental health issues are going to foster homes instead of receiving a higher level of care at treatment facilities — and they’re running away. The counties said 69 children and teens in the custody of 36 counties were missing. 

Human services officials said they are working on both issues by trying to expand the number of options statewide for foster kids as well as juveniles in the detention system. 

The state law passed in 2019 and in effect as of January says that authorities must seek out relatives or other suitable adults for youths who are awaiting a detention hearing. Jurisdictions are still adjusting to the new policy, which requires them to use a form to gather a kid’s family details, human services officials said. 

Meanwhile, the state department is collecting data to determine how many shelter beds are needed.

The department “wants to ensure that any solution we collectively pursue is driven by data and based on the needs of youth that are screened out of detention and cannot go home,” Ruble said. Besides shelter beds, other options under discussion include additional drug and alcohol treatment services.

The request for statistics about how many children might need emergency shelter is a frustrating one for the district attorney’s offices, which question why they are required to produce data when state law already has a provision for the shelter option.

“What data would you want to see?” asked Sarah Ericson, a deputy district attorney and director of diversion at the 18th Judicial District. “We are in this place where Colorado has never been before.

“Kids are sleeping in places where they aren’t meant to be sleeping.” 

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 for 13 years at The Denver Post, including several years on the investigative projects team, before helping create The Sun in 2018.

Jen is a graduate of the University of Montana and loves hiking, skiing and watching her kids' sports.

Email: Twitter: @jenbrowncolo