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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)

Some children and teens locked in youth corrections centers in Colorado are waiting longer than a month after their court-approved release date because there is no place for them to go.

The state is so short on treatment beds and foster homes that about one-third of young people are held past their release date, on average for 20 additional days, according to a new report that was required by a 2021 law. About one-quarter of children and teens were kept 30 days or longer than required.

The law passed two years ago set up a review team to better track the intersection between the juvenile justice system and the child welfare system, seeking to reduce the length of time juveniles spend in detention.

The state set a goal of not detaining kids and teens for more than 30 days while searching for a relative to take them, a foster home or a treatment bed. The problem is that Colorado lacks enough of those placement options, especially for kids accused of violent crimes, gun crimes or sexual offenses.

The law requires annual reports and the first one analyzed detention data for 1,177 children and teens who were in the juvenile justice system July-December 2022. Of those, 405 also had an open child welfare case with a county child protection department. 

Colorado has 15 juvenile detention centers that hold people ages 10-21. Eight hold young people in detention before their cases are decided, while the others contain those who are serving sentences.

The review found that 94 of the 1,177 young people were held 30 days or more beyond when they could have been released. 

The state does not yet track the exact reasons why it took longer than a month to find those 94 people a proper placement, but Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families at the state human services department, said the delays are often related to a lack of space in treatment programs for mental health, substance abuse and sex offenses. 

And in some cases, a child or teen is not waiting for treatment but for a safe place to live. If they cannot return home because of an abuse and neglect case, or because they are accused of harming someone in their family or neighborhood, counties are supposed to find a relative or a foster home that can take them. The search can sometimes take weeks or longer. 

The timeline for finding kids the right placement has been squeezed in recent years not only by the closure of residential treatment programs, but also by the reduction of the statewide youth corrections bed capacity. The allowed capacity, set by the legislature, has decreased four times since 2019. 

Colorado set a statutory cap on juvenile detention in 2003. It began at 479 beds and was lowered in 2011, 2013, 2019 and 2021. Now it’s less than half of the 2003 number at 215. 

The state Division of Youth Services, which runs the youth corrections system, asked lawmakers this year to raise their allowed capacity to 249 from 215. In their pitch, state human services officials said the juvenile justice system last year had come the closest in 15 years to reaching the bed limit. It hit a one-day high of 208, just seven people below capacity.

That proposal to raise the bed cap did not pass, but the legislature did dole out extra funds so the division can offer incentive payments to treatment facilities willing to take kids who are hard to place. Lawmakers also allowed the division to create 22 emergency beds, which judicial districts throughout the state can use when all the other beds they’ve been allotted are filled.

Debate over the 2021 law, which again called for lowering juvenile corrections bed capacity, focused on what would happen to children and teens who were awaiting placement in a treatment center or a foster home. State child welfare officials were concerned that those kids would end up being released without services. 

“We don’t want young people to linger past an ability to be released,” Castillo Cohen said. “But it is oftentimes about locating an appropriate treatment setting, and we don’t have a wide variety of placement settings.” 

County child welfare departments looking for treatment options are competing with hospitals looking for step-down mental health programs for children who went to emergency departments in mental health crises. 

The new analysis also looked at whether kids and teens are going into the right level of placement or services, with a goal of placing them in the least-restrictive environment that is safe. 

It found that 83% of young people were placed at the same level of care, such as a locked juvenile corrections center, as was called for in the screening assessment they received after arrest. About 5% were sent to a higher–level setting than they needed, and about 12% were sent to a lower-level setting.

The most common reason to override the appropriate level of care was domestic violence, including in cases in which the juvenile is accused of harming someone in their family. In other cases, an override occurred because a judge or district attorney believed there were factors in the case that merited sending a young person to secure detention.

Other reasons for sending a kid to a higher level of care are that their family will not take them, or their post-arrest assessment says they should be released to a shelter bed in a residential facility, except there is no available bed, Castillo Cohen said.

“They are screened into a level of care that is nonexistent or their family is like, ‘They can’t come home,’ for whatever reason,” 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 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