The state will no longer control a youth detention facility that has a history of problems. Gateway to Independence will soon be run by the private company, TrueCore Behavioral Solutions.
“It’s not that we’re taking resources away it’s that we’re sort of realigning our resources and putting some on the front end to hopefully help the entire family so those kids can get better in their family environment before they get into trouble,” said Misty Neely, Executive Director of Juvenile Justice for DCS.
Gateway to Independence, formerly known as Woodland Hills Youth Detention Center, was formed after a riot broke out in 2014. Over 30 juveniles escaped and the incident made national news.
The Department of Children’s Services poured $5 million into a new building, transferred the children there and changed the name.
Come fall, the building will be leased out to TrueCore, which will change the facility from a “hardware-secured” facility to a “level three”.
A hardware-secure facility has barbed wire and doors that lock like a prison. Level threes are “staff-secure”, which means it’s up to the staff to keep the children inside and safe.
There are eight level three facilities in Middle Tennessee. They are less secure but are also meant for children with less serious offenses.
“For some time we’ve been seeing a reduction in the number of youth needing a hardware-secure bed and an increase in the number of kids needing a level three,” said DCS Commissioner Bonnie Hommrich.
DCS says the millions of dollars spent for renovations will not be in vain. The building will still be used but in a different capacity as the state shifts its approach to juvenile justice.
“There is a shift from the punitive approach, the ‘you’re a bad young person with bad behavior’ to ‘you’ve probably had some traumatic experiences early on in your childhood,’” said Neely.
Right now, the children at GTI are being moved to one of two youth detention centers left in the state. Others are going home.
“Remarkably, lots of them are going home and we are wrapping services around them,” said Neely. “It just seems that’s how things unfolded. They were able to complete their program. The timing was excellent.”
The changes come after GTI had been in the spotlight this year. In January, windows were broke after several juveniles refused to listen to the staff.
Woods’ attorney believes DCS is sending the children inside GTI home too early. However, he is partially optimistic about the change.
“I have some hope that Truecore is better at doing this than the Department Children’s Services and that they’re able to provide the therapeutic service that children need,” said Mark Downton, Woods’ attorney.
The DCS Commissioner said the change has nothing anything to do with the lawsuit but does have to do with the problems GTI has had.
“I’ll be candid: all those things – the financial, the challenges of hiring qualified staff in a city that has such a low unemployment rate and the fact that there were some riots,” she said. “I think we thought about all of those things because we considered everything and we’re trying to make the best decision for these kids.”
Level three facilities tend to be more therapeutic in nature and are able to address children with special needs, like mental illness. However, because there is less security, there are runaways and escapees from level threes.
According to DCS analysts, who have not yet researched the data fully for WKRN, approximately 200 juvenile justice youth have run or have attempted to run from a Level Three staff-secure facility since Jan. 1, 2017.
Downton calls it an epidemic.
“DCS does not have the resources in place to keep kids from running away,” he said. “What they are doing here today by closing down GTI and moving it to a level three does not address that problem at all.”
He says running away is bad for the kids and the public.
“When the kids run away they commit crime almost every single time,” said Downton. “So we know that’s going to happen and that’s going to be a risk for the community.”
DCS said kids will run away and do.
“They’re kids still,” said Commissioner Hommrich. “They run away from their parents, they run away from foster homes, so that experience will happen. It happens all over the state and all over the country but we’re doing everything we can to minimize that.”
TrueCore will take over in Mid-September. DCS will then have access to federal funding for youth treatment when it becomes a level three facility. Meanwhile, employees at GTI will have to reapply for their jobs.