A $45-million, controversial plan to turn a now-vacant, rural campus that previously housed teens in the criminal justice and foster care systems into a “recovery campus” for the homeless passed its first Capitol hearing Monday.
A committee voted 4-3 to advance the measure despite festering questions about why Gov. Jared Polis’ administration shut down the youth center in the first place.
“The optics around this are absolutely terrible from my perspective,” said Sen. Jim Smallwood, a Republican from Parker. “The optics, in my opinion, are that we had a facility, we wanted to close it down, we found a reason to close it down and now, magically, it becomes a solution for another agenda item. I’ve got a lot of people who think this thing stinks.”
The proposal is to use $45 million in federal pandemic relief funds to repurpose the campus east of Denver in the fields of Watkins as a place where people who are homeless could live for up to two years while receiving mental health treatment and job training. The campus, which includes dorm rooms that could house about 200 adults, plus a gym and a football field, had 41 boys in June when the state abruptly ended its contract.
The closure was prompted by safety concerns that included runaways, lax supervision, drug use and an inappropriate relationship between an employee and a student at Ridge View Youth Services Center. When state officials arrived to transfer young people to other residential centers or foster homes, with little notice to staff, some kids ran off into the fields. Two were missing for weeks and the state hired a private investigator to track them.
It was clear from a crowded hearing before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee that hard feelings about the closure still run deep.
Although the vote was along party lines, lawmakers on both sides questioned why the state wasn’t repurposing the campus to serve young people, particularly when the state is in the midst of a youth mental health crisis. Kids are waiting weeks in hospitals or are sent out of state because Colorado is short on psychiatric treatment beds.
But officials from the Colorado Department of Human Services, which includes the child welfare division, said the program at the Ridge View campus was ended for one reason: child safety. And because of new federal regulations, state officials are moving away from large youth treatment centers in favor of smaller, more specialized centers that can treat more acute behavioral health issues. The campus in Watkins could fit 500 young people, but state officials plan to house about 300 adults per year in single- and double-occupancy dorms.
“The days of those 500-bed facilities really are past,” said Mollie Bradlee, deputy director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families.
The state plans to add dozens of youth residential beds this year and next, including 48 spots funded by federal coronavirus aid, which is why Colorado should use the vacant campus to help solve the homelessness crisis, state officials testified.
Many of the questions about Senate Bill 211 — from current lawmakers, former lawmakers and board members of the charter school at the youth facility — centered on why state officials closed the center so quickly and did not instead work with the facility operator, Rite of Passage.
Patricia Hayes, a former University of Colorado regent and a board member for the Ridge View school, said the day authorities came to transfer children — right after a graduation ceremony — was the second-worst day of her life, only behind her son’s death. “They came in with leather straps and chains to take them out of our school,” Hayes said. “It was tragic, not only for the boys but certainly for us who were standing there, bewildered by it all.”
And former state Sen. Nancy Todd, a Democrat, railed against the lack of transparency regarding the closure. She testified that she hadn’t returned to the Capitol since her term ended two years ago. But “this is monumental, my friends,” she said. “This is not the Colorado way.” The closure of the campus, Todd said, “ate my soul.”
Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Republican from Weld County, repeatedly asked why the youth center was “abruptly closed” and what the state planned to do to solve the “urgent need” to help troubled youth that still exists. County human services agencies that placed the boys at the Ridge View campus “were not OK with what happened with Ridge View closed,” Kirkmeyer said, as the children “got dumped back on counties.”
Sen. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, asked what happened to all the boys who were removed from Ridge View and said she had heard from many constituents who were upset about the way the facility was closed. State officials said the kids are now living at home, with relatives, in foster homes, residential treatment centers and, in a few cases, locked up in the Division of Youth Services.
Buckner ended up voting for the new recovery campus, though she said she struggled with her decision.
Records obtained by The Colorado Sun through public information laws last year show that Ridge View had been under intense scrutiny by the state licensing division since at least 2018. In 2019, state regulators identified 83 potential licensing violations, including that illicit drugs, such as LSD, spice and Xanax, were smuggled into the facility.
Ridge View’s license was put on probationary status for six months in 2018, and state officials in 2019 said they would not revoke the center’s license. Later that year, in response to new complaints of abuse and neglect, the state again put Ridge View on notice of potential licensing violations. And then in April 2020, state officials again said they would not take action.
Then last June, state regulators showed up on campus and took children living at Ridge View to other facilities.
Five months later, a group of state officials including the governor toured the empty campus, which has seven dormitories and a cafeteria. For two decades, the state-owned facility held children and teens who were in the youth corrections and child welfare systems, though over the years, the number of kids sent to Ridge View dramatically declined as Colorado sent fewer kids into lockup.
Polis has said he envisions a homeless recovery campus similar to the one in Fort Lyon, a former Army fort in Las Animas that the state turned into a transitional housing, drug treatment and job-training program eight years ago. Before the coronavirus pandemic forced a decrease in enrollment, Fort Lyon had a waiting list.
The governor also wants a $50 million homeless recovery center in Denver, though officials have not identified a location. That recovery center could include several locations, including one for substance abuse treatment.
Besides the controversy with the Ridge View closure, some questioned whether it’s reasonable to send people who are homeless away from the city and its resources. State officials working on the master plan for the campus said they are considering contracting out for transportation services.
“We are talking about a colossal drive to get there and back,” Sen. Smallwood said. “What are we supposed to do when somebody has a job interview? It seems so galactically far away.
“It feels horrible to me, like we’re shipping people out of sight.”
But Sen. Rhonda Fields, a prime sponsor of the measure, said the state has an important opportunity to use a “beautiful,” empty facility to tackle homelessness.
The Aurora Democrat said she had concerns about the closure too, but that it was time to move forward. “Ridge View is closed. There is no avenue, there’s no line of sight for us to reopen Ridge View,” she said. “When someone tells you they’ve been abused, you can’t ignore it.”
The campus will have a different feel than when it was a locked youth center, Fields said. “We can’t make you stay there if you don’t want to,” she said. “You can walk away. You can leave.”