La Plata County Sheriff’s Office deputies have become de facto babysitters and chauffeurs for children who break the law ever since a local juvenile detention center closed nine months ago, said Sheriff Sean Smith.
The county has spent tens of thousands of dollars and approved hundreds of hours of overtime from an already tight budget since the Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center was shuttered in August by the state of Colorado, which cited evidence of child abuse, among other violations.
The Sheriff’s Office is required under state policy to transport juveniles suspected of breaking the law to a state-funded detention center. But with DeNier closed, the nearest approved facility is in Grand Junction, which is a 3½-hour drive or a $550 flight.
Since DeNier closed, the Sheriff’s Office has spent about $25,000 transporting and watching unruly children, Smith said. Almost $18,000 of the expenses were for flights, per diems, lodging and rental vehicles associated with transporting juveniles to either Grand Mesa or Pueblo. As of this week, it has amounted to 33 trips and almost 200 hours of staff time beyond deputies’ normal duties.
“There have been situations where we’re transporting on a Saturday night only to bring them back to court Monday,” Smith said of juvenile offenders.
The Sheriff’s Office has spent an additional $7,000 or so supervising juvenile suspects before transportation can be arranged, Smith said. From arrest to transporting, deputies, lieutenants and even captains have been tasked with watching juvenile suspects in “non-secure detention” settings, Smith said.
In other words, deputies must watch juveniles in unlocked rooms. If the youth decides to leave the room, the deputy cannot stop him or her. But once the juvenile steps outside, he or she can be arrested. Law enforcement then has six hours to transport the youth to an approved detention center.
The Colorado Department of Human Services will pick up at least part of the costs being incurred by the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office to transport juvenile offenders while the Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center is closed.
DeNier closed in August after state officials suspended its contract with Rite of Passage after videos showed a staff member grabbing a boy by the shoulders and throat and holding him to the ground. Investigators found no imminent danger that would have warranted such behavior.
The state also accused Rite of Passage of failing to maintain state standards, making misleading or false statements to state officials, failing to provide safe conditions, violating the Child Care Licensing Act and employees committing acts of child abuse, according to an order from the Colorado Department of Human Services.
Heidi Bauer, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Human Services, said the agency published a request for proposals to reopen DeNier under a new contractor, but bids for managing the facility came in much higher than expected. State officials are now in the process of determining what is needed to reopen the facility for youth detention, Bauer said.
Smith said some residents have suggested other uses for the DeNier building, including some community members who suggested it be used as a homeless shelter.
“I want to see the best and highest use of that facility,” Smith said. “Who knows what the future will hold, but (the facility is) much better serving in that juvenile detention role.”
An earlier version of this story omitted a detail that the Colorado Department of Human Services will pick up at least part of the costs being incurred by the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office to transport juvenile offenders while the Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center is closed. The detail was omitted in editing.