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Pain and Promise: Kids in storage -- can the state break the pattern?

By MARY HARGROVE

This article was published February 27, 2000 at 3:49 a.m.

At 13, Charles still couldn't pass first grade. He couldn't define "cow." Or "donkey." He couldn't tell time. His speech defect was so severe that he was nearly impossible to understand. When teased by other children, he cried hysterically.

He also got into trouble. He was taken in front of a juvenile court judge for annoying a woman by ringing her doorbell and banging on her window after curfew.

Previously, Charles (not his real name) had hit, threatened and bitten his teacher, stolen several bicycles, attacked a school bus driver and smoked marijuana.

This time, the judge didn't ignore his behavior. The boy, who functions like a 5-year-old, was declared a juvenile delinquent for misdemeanor harassment and violation of curfew.

Feet shackled and hands cuffed, he was sent to the Alexander Youth Services Center in June 1999. Gang members, rapists and murderers - the state's most violent juvenile delinquents - were locked inside the 100-acre facility surrounded by razor wire.

Now, Charles lived there, too.

About 800 children, ages 10 to 17, are sent annually to the Division of Youth Services, a part of the state Department of Human Services.

DYS is a giant holding cell - a warehouse for children with every imaginable background. Some may be mentally ill, some mentally retarded. Others are sex offenders. Most have serious drug and alcohol problems. All have broken the law.

Juvenile court judges place them in the custody of the state to be locked up as punishment for their crimes as well as for the safety of others. The goal is to rehabilitate, to help turn delinquent children away from destructive behavior and return them home with new coping skills.

But children often leave state custody more confused, violent and predatory than when they entered the system.

"What has happened to the children has been a tragedy," said Pulaski County Circuit-Chancery Judge Wiley Branton Jr. "Most of these kids could make legitimate progress if they were worked with."

The juvenile justice system was never set up to handle the extensive physical and emotional problems of these children - problems that may contribute to their criminal behavior.

Only 9 percent of the boys and 40 percent of the girls at the Alexander campus have been placed in the treatment programs recommended for them by a clinical psychologist, according to records obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

At any one time, DYS has 320 children in its residential facilities, which include the Alexander Youth Services Center and the five serious-offender camps near the towns of Colt, Harrisburg, Mansfield, Dermott and Lewisville.

When the Alexander campus or the wilderness camps are overcrowded, children are released early or placed in any available treatment program - regardless of whether that program fits the child's needs.

"If you have five kids coming in the front, DYS shoves five kids out the back," said 2nd District Circuit-Chancery Judge David Goodson of Paragould.

Detention and treatment time are so short that DYS has become a revolving door. Children commit new crimes and return.

"We don't have a pen full of monsters," said Greg Kirksey, who operated the Boys and Girls Club at Alexander from June 1998 to December 1999. "These kids can change, but they don't stay here long enough to be helped. We need a program aimed at rehab."

Kirksey recalled escorting a church group on campus last year. During the tour, one of the DYS boys masturbated in front of them.

"He has a low IQ. He has no business being here. He needs to be in a state hospital," Kirksey said. "We've got kids out here that nobody else wants and nobody else will take.

"There is so little rehab, it's like giving the kids an aspirin for a headache caused by a brain tumor."

DYS employees called youth services workers are forced to deal with a population they have never been trained to handle, including the mentally ill. This results in confrontations that can be dangerous to staff and children.

Because of understaffing, it is not unusual for two workers to be left to watch 30 boys in one dorm.

A Democrat-Gazette computer analysis of incident reports between January 1999 and May 1999 shows an average 7.5 incidents a day - fighting, disorderly conduct, threats, self-inflicted injuries - at the Alexander campus.

There were 86 incidents during the first seven days of May, including 14 on May 1. Among the May reports: 28 cases of disorderly conduct, 13 fights, nine self-inflicted injuries, three physical abuse allegations and two sexual abuse allegations.

"DYS is sorely deficient in helping many of our children," said Russell Rigsby, DYS director. "You have to break it down to its tracks and start over."

Rigsby took over DYS on Jan. 13, 1999. It didn't take him long, he said, to figure out the problems were so pervasive that nothing short of creating a new system would work.

Rigsby has begun a five-year plan to:

Reshape five regional juvenile camps around the state into comprehensive treatment complexes at Alexander, Harrisburg, Lewisville, Mansfield and Dermott;

Tear down antiquated dorms at the Alexander campus and the Mansfield wilderness camp and replace them with modern, high-security structures;

Reorganize the Alexander staff, hire better-trained workers and pay them better;

Oversee creation of a major complex at Dermott to separate older and more violent offenders from the general population and to incarcerate 18- to 21-year-olds;

Hire 14 more staff monitors to travel to every DYS facility and monitor the care of the children monthly. That would bring the monitoring staff to 20;

Add hundreds of slots in treatment programs.

DYS has contracts with treatment programs for 18 sex offenders, seven mental health cases, and 23 alcohol and drug patients. There are no special arrangements for children who are developmentally disabled or suffer from acute psychiatric problems.

Rigsby is expanding treatment to accommodate 65 sex offenders, and to create 103 mental health slots, including 35 for the developmentally disabled and 12 for youths with acute psychiatric needs. The 50 alcohol and drug treatment openings are for 30- to 60-day programs and would treat 300 children a year.

"In the past, the division used the Band-Aid principle. It's easy to relieve this tension valve by taking short-term actions," Rigsby said. "Stick a kid in a cell. Send him somewhere - anywhere - to get him off the campus and help the understaffed facility. That's not the long-term answer or we'll always be doing this."

A large dose of pain goes along with the promise of better care for Arkansas' troubled children.

It will be at least two years before upgraded treatment for all the children entering the DYS system is available.

Rigsby has asked juvenile court judges to defer committing children, when possible, during the reorganization. Judges have also been cautioned that children sent to DYS for misdemeanors may be kept for only 30 days.

Contracts with seven county-operated juvenile detention centers have been canceled. The division paid those centers $2.1 million in fiscal 1999 to house 85 youths. Many of these centers counted on payments from DYS to stay afloat.

"This is not about making money for people running centers. It's about treating children and making them the top priority. That's not been done before," Rigsby said.

"We are just piling up another group of kids and holding them in the detention centers," Rigsby said. "They are not getting treatment. They just have to wait for weeks to enter the system. Then, they act up, and that's where we get abuse."

Under Rigsby's plan, at least 38 employees at the Alexander center would be terminated. Their jobs will be eliminated or replaced by 45 new positions requiring different qualifications.

Overall, 68 percent of Alexander's employees are black. About 70 percent of those whose jobs are affected are black. This has led to allegations of discrimination during legislative hearings.

Politics will also play a role in the expansion.

The division's budget is currently $48 million. The total plan carries a $9.9 million price tag if every bed is filled, which Rigsby does not expect for several years. That money represents annual operating costs. Federal funds will be essential: They are expected to pay a substantial portion of the tab. State general revenue funds will be requested for the rest.

Only the first two years of the five-year project have been funded. Rigsby plans to request funds to complete his program in the 2001 legislative session.

"I feel like Russell Rigsby is committed to the long term," said White County Circuit-Chancery Judge Robert Edwards. "We'll see whether he has the financial support from the Legislature and the governor that he's been led to believe he has. That has to happen."

Despite the hurdles, Rigsby forges ahead.

"Waiting for all this to take form is painful," Rigsby said. "But I am determined that we are going to stretch it out over the necessary time frame and fix it once and for all."

After arriving at the Alexander campus in June 1999, Charles was sent to Mac Cottage, the dorm set aside for the "little ones" on the Alexander campus.

Although he is 13 years old, he is tiny. His physical appearance matches his mentality - between kindergarten and first grade.

"He can't read," said Jacque Nash, youth services worker.

"We have first-grade books on the dorm. One Saturday, Charles was being really fidgety. I told him to get me a book and tell me what the book is about.

"He started making up stuff based on the pictures."

Judge David Goodson recalled the day Rigsby told him he was considering the director's job at DYS.

"How long can you keep the alligators from eating you?" Goodson asked him.

Goodson, whose district includes Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Greene, Mississippi and Poinsett counties, has been a juvenile court judge since 1991. He is impressed by Rigsby's plans, but is cautious. "In the past, other directors have said 'We've got to change this,'" he said. "In my long history with DYS, it hasn't happened."

Adds Jefferson County Circuit-Chancery Judge Thomas Brown: "DYS seems to have a substantial amount of fractiousness."

The Division of Youth Services was created by Act 1296 of 1993 "to be devoted entirely to handling the problems of youths involved with the juvenile justice system."

After three years, judges began complaining about a lack of response to their pleas that DYS develop consistent evaluations and find treatment programs for troubled children.

It was not for lack of trying. In 1997, then-DYS Director Ruth Whitney proposed a $14 million increase for 1998 and $17 million for 1999 to address many of the problems Rigsby faces. That included additional treatment capacity for sex offenders and children with low IQs or psychiatric problems.

"If the tide of problems is not turned," she warned in her budget request, "the problems may overwhelm the system."

Her request was denied during the budget hearings. Whitney left to be director of DHS county operations in March 1998.

In April 1998, Gov. Mike Huckabee became aware that stories were about to be published in the Democrat-Gazette detailing systematic mismanagement and abuse of children living in DYS facilities. He called a press conference and promised to correct the problems.

In June 1998, a six-part series was published in the Democrat-Gazette. After the first two parts appeared, Huckabee announced that he would close the Central Arkansas Observation and Assessment Center in North Little Rock, where much of the abuse was alleged to have taken place. All children entering the DYS system had been evaluated at the O&A center, which formerly had been an adult jail.

Part way through the publication of that series, DHS Director Lee Frazier resigned. Acting DYS Director Larance Johnson had been asked to quit a month earlier.

Benton businessman Paul Doramus, a former state representative, was appointed by Huckabee to take over DYS. He became DYS director on June 1, 1998.

Doramus, 42, scrambled to explain the situation he inherited to angry legislators holding hearings that summer on the disclosures in the newspaper series.

And then two Jonesboro boys made matters more complicated.

In August 1998, two National Guard helicopters descended on the Alexander campus in the middle of the night carrying Mitchell Johnson, 14, and Andrew Golden, 12. The boys had been placed in state custody for killing five people and wounding 10 others when they shot at classmates and teachers at Westside Middle School near Jonesboro.

Doramus began fielding calls from legislators upset about the $6,000 tab for the two helicopters, while others questioned whether the boys would be safe in that environment.

The problems mounted.

In September, a report requested by Doramus outlined 24 deficiencies in the state-accredited high school on the Alexander campus. Students were supposed to be in class six hours a day but actually were being taught "on the average only 2.5 hours" each day.

"It will require a massive overhaul of our education system to correct these problems," Doramus said.

That same month, a boy at the House of Hope dorm on the Alexander campus stabbed a staff member several times in the face with a device made from wire and duct tape.

In October 1998, two boys escaped from the Alexander campus. They were captured a few days later in Mississippi.

Meanwhile, Doramus was trying to reorganize DYS.

He suggested hiring private firms to run the facilities. He began by negotiating with the Rivendell Management Co. to provide regular, special and vocational education for youths housed at the Alexander campus and at the Arkansas State Hospital beginning in December.

That would result in 21 state employees being terminated. Other workers were angry that long-term DYS employees were being replaced and feared for their own jobs. Morale sagged at the overcrowded Alexander campus.

On Nov. 4, 1998, Doramus unexpectedly resigned. He had been on the job five months.

While Doramus publicly attributed his abrupt departure to stress on his family and his own health, others believe there was another issue - he could not get the funding necessary to address the problems.

"Paul Doramus had long-range plans for DYS and when he went and said 'This is how much it's going to cost,' they said, 'You're not going to get that,'" said Judge Goodson.

Doramus saw no choice but to leave.

Once again, the DYS job was open.

"Charles had temper tantrums that were out of this world. He would start cursing, kicking, screaming and crying," said Jacque Nash, a youth services worker. "When I first saw it, I couldn't believe it.

"One day he was crying very hard. He has such a speech defect that it's hard to understand him even when he is not upset. I told him he had to slow down or I couldn't help him.

"He finally stopped stuttering enough to tell me that someone had hit him with a shoe. It took me 15 minutes to get that out of him. The other kids picked on Charles because he was so slow.

"We're not equipped to handle a low-functioning kid like that."

His DYS evaluation concluded, "Charles should be receiving services from Developmental Disabilities Services. ... He can barely communicate and requires 24-hour supervision."

When John Brownlee heard that Russell Rigsby had been named DYS director, he couldn't imagine why anyone would want the job.

Brownlee had been recruited by Doramus in July 1998 to work on prevention programs for DYS with the 15 community-based providers. He was one of the few willing to take on the challenge at DYS.

Stories abound of newly hired workers at Alexander who left at lunch on their first day and never returned.

"People will apply for jobs at DHS, but they don't want to work for the Division of Youth Services," Brownlee said. "We're the bottom rung of the ladder.

"In Arkansas we say, 'Thank God for Mississippi.' In state government, you say, 'Thank God for DYS.'"

Rigsby, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was no stranger to Arkansas' troubled youths or DYS. He had managed the serious-offender wilderness camp at Harrisburg in 1997 for Consolidated Youth Services Inc., which had a contract with DYS.

In 1998, Consolidated Youth Services successfully bid to run the wilderness camp at Colt when Associated Marine Institutes lost its DYS contract. Rigsby moved to St. Francis County to set up a new program for that camp.

He thought he knew what lay in store for him in Little Rock. Later, he would admit that new problems seemed to spring from a bottomless pit.

"I noticed a state of exhaustion, frustration and apathy stood out on the face of everybody involved in DYS," Rigsby said. "Some days I felt like I had a fire coming at me from the front and from the back.

"It's like the emergency room of a hospital. You determine which person is hurting the most. Then, calculate what to fix first. I had to condition myself to not let it overwhelm me."

Reasons for the constant upheaval soon became clear.

Rigsby took over DYS in January 1999 as the Legislature was gearing up for its biennial session. DHS had planned to solicit bids from private companies to operate DYS facilities. Under the plan, the Division of Youth Services would be relegated to monitoring those operations.

The staff members at Alexander, many of them 10- or 20-year employees, were angry and frightened about potentially losing their jobs.

And no one was looking forward to suffering through the learning curve with Rigsby - another new boss.

Since 1997, there had been four DHS directors, six DYS directors, at least five directors at the Alexander campus and anywhere from five to seven dorm directors. Each had his own ideas.

There was no current policy and procedures manual. Rules changed from week to week through memos or verbal orders.

Rigsby appointed Brownlee to be an assistant director at Alexander until all the facilities could be turned over to private companies.

Brownlee's initial reports were disturbing.

"When I went to Alexander in March 1999, three of our cottages had no unit managers, meaning we had staff that weren't being supervised," Brownlee said.

"We found 164 employees who hadn't had evaluations, some for three years. People weren't clocking in and out, and nobody was asking them to do that."

Brownlee tried to draw an organizational chart after asking employees who they worked with.

"There were lines and boxes that didn't connect. Some people didn't know who to report to. It was pretty dysfunctional."

Rigsby wanted somebody who had been in the system to oversee Alexander until the privatization bids came in. He interviewed the Alexander staff and came across George McNutt, who had retired after 20 years in the Air Force. McNutt, 45, had been with DYS a little more than a year.

McNutt's reports added to Rigsby's growing must-fix list.

McNutt removed the huge wooden beds and replaced them with smaller metal bunk beds. That provided more space, and the boys could no longer use the wooden frames as battering rams against the door.

Worn carpet, filthy from years of use, was torn out of the dorm rooms and floors were lacquered.

The children had been doing the laundry unsupervised. Although there were more than 150 children on campus, the washing machines were not industrial strength because of outdated wiring in the 30-year-old buildings. Washers and dryers frequently broke down.

That meant clothes weren't cleaned for several days.

Also, clothing was not labeled. "It was kind of appalling to me to send underwear in and get someone else's back," said McNutt, who ordered that names be placed on clothing.

He began to make weekly inspections in which he would pass through the dorms checking for unmade beds, burnt-out light bulbs and plumbing problems.

He tried to instill a level of respect in the children. He insisted the boys be addressed as "Mister" and that staff and children stop cursing one another.

An independent child advocate hired by Doramus from The Counseling Clinic Inc. of Benton also contributed to the unsettling picture.

Robin Golleher, the advocate, collected complaints from children and staff. Some were compiled through interviews, but most stemmed from anonymous messages dropped in a locked box at Alexander and the Arkansas State Hospital. DYS transferred some children to the hospital as part of a prerelease program.

Among the complaints:

Feb. 22, 1999: Nursing staff advised House of Hope staff member to follow protocol as client was having a seizure and that nursing staff would come when they could.

March 8, 1999: Student was denied use of an inhaler for asthma as prescribed by Alexander center doctor and then placed in an isolation room for asking another staff member for his inhaler.

March 15, 1999: Pants not washed for a week and a half, and no clean clothes to change into.

March 29, 1999: Roaches in food. Dead mouse left on cafeteria floor for several days.

April 5, 1999: Request to see dentist since Jan. 27 without results.

Need for medical care for infections for two youths.

Advocate observed dead roach on floor in cafeteria.

April 12, 1999: (at Arkansas State Hospital)

Staff (allegedly) told student: "I'll shut that door and beat the s*** out of you," and "If I was your daddy, I'd take an extension cord and wrap it around your neck and beat the s*** out of you."

For a second time, the advocate warned the administration: "Students are being questioned and possibly threatened or treated differently for talking to me. Students there [the State Hospital] acted as if they were afraid to look up from their desks at me."

Rigsby's own inspection was much more critical.

Roofs leaked. Air-conditioning and heating units were broken throughout the campus.

On a tour of the facility, Rigsby showed a Democrat-Gazette reporter pools of water on the kitchen floor during lunch, filthy exhaust fans over stoves, dishes drying next to overflowing garbage cans, corroded gas lines running out of the wall next to the stove, and sacks of uncovered vegetables on the floor in a storage closet.

"The refrigerators are old and constantly malfunctioning," Rigsby said. "The cooking equipment is outdated, and the dishwashing machine is dilapidated."

Outside, the garbage and the grease vat containers stood next to freezers and to unenclosed food storage sheds.

A three-foot opening could be seen at the bottom of one uncovered shed that held canned foods and dry goods. It stood several hundred feet from the back door of the kitchen in a grassy area.

"The cooks are afraid to go in because snakes get in there," Rigsby said. "We need to enclose that area and get the trash away from the food elements."

Rep. Henry "Hank" Wilkins IV, D-Pine Bluff, witnessed similar problems.

"I paid a surprise visit to Alexander during the session. I was really shocked at a number of things that were supposed to have been taken care of since the previous year when all of the hullabaloo was going on," he said.

"The condition of the living quarters was just deplorable. We were promised it would be taken care of. Alexander is always in transition, and we [legislators] can't get things done."

When Rigsby began to ask about the mental health treatment programs, he was stunned. In effect, there was little to no rehabilitation for most of the children.

Counselors conduct group therapy sessions once or twice a week. A psychiatrist visits the Alexander campus to see the most serious cases individually. Treatment is generally restricted to on-campus visits because of the risk of kids running away and the lack of personnel to transport them.

But something else struck Rigsby as he studied the population. What were all these children with serious mental health problems doing in a correctional facility? And did their psychological problems cause their criminal behavior?

"We needed a target population. Kids with all kinds of problems were mixed together, and it created a false belief that we could rehabilitate them all," Rigsby said. "Some of the kids needed to be in a more restrictive setting than DYS had to offer. Some should have been in the community.

"Defining who we would take should have been done when they created DYS on Day One. It never happened."

Rigsby decided to focus his new program on separating the "true juvenile delinquent" - a child who could benefit from DYS programs - from the other disturbed children who should be sent directly to treatment.

The concept was just what Bonnie Smith wanted to hear. Smith oversees the wilderness camps at Harrisburg and Colt. When new children arrive, she is never sure what kind of boys are being added to an already unstable mix.

She recalled a combative boy who was sent to the Colt program in May 1999.

He was 16 years old, 5 foot 8, and weighed 193 pounds. He had a 69 IQ. An IQ of 90 to 110 is average.

"He was in for several counts of battery," Smith said. "His files described him as making sexual remarks toward girls, as well as assaults and threatening people with guns."

The boy had to be restrained continually. Smith said her contract stipulated that she does not have to take children who require physical restraints.

DYS removed the boy after a conference with Smith's staff. Smith said she receives about five kids a year who have to be removed and placed in some other level of care.

The serious-offender programs were not set up to treat kids who are emotionally disturbed or whose primary problems are sex or alcohol and drug abuse.

"We have some alcohol and drug group treatment, but we don't have any intensive treatment for those kids," Smith said. "A sex offender might get treatment once a week and they probably need it more like four or five times a week to do a really good job.

"A kid who sells drugs or kills someone in a drive-by shooting or breaks and enters into homes, - what we call a true delinquent - we can deal with them," Smith said. "But when these other kids come in with their variety of problems, what do you do?"

The shock waves continued to roll over Rigsby.

In April, the bids to privatize the facilities came back. The results, at first, were disappointing.

Only two companies of at least seven that had toured the DYS facilities submitted bids. Rigsby said that Corrections Corporation of America wanted too much money. Rivendell, the second bidder, did not have enough experience running so large a system.

"When I arrived at DYS, the privatizing plan was going full steam. In hindsight, I'm not sure that privatizing would have been best," Rigsby said. "There were too many unknowns."

But the failure of major companies to submit bids reinforced what he was finding out hourly on his own.

"I talked to a couple of the national companies who said DYS appeared to be the inheritance of a problem. It said something to me when all of those big guns backed out," Rigsby said.

So, in the middle of the legislative session, Rigsby pulled together his master plan to rebuild and reorganize DYS.

The Legislature had some plans of its own.

Act 469 of 1999 increased the training and education requirements for DYS youth services workers and guards.

Act 1030 of 1999 mandated that children be separated by age, seriousness of crime and if they were sex offenders.

Act 1580 of 1999 established an ombudsman program. Eight social workers directed by Scott Tanner will visit Alexander Youth Services Center and other DYS facilities weekly. They are to monitor problems and progress. The $430,000 in funding is channeled through the Public Defenders Commission.

Act 1192 of 1999 created "Extended Juvenile Jurisdiction" or blended sentencing. Judges could now sentence youths of any age to prison for capital murder and first-degree murder if they are deemed to be competent.

Such a youth may first be placed in a DYS facility. After he turns 18, his behavior is reviewed by the court. The child may then either be released from custody or transferred to adult prison.

The blended sentencing law also applied to 14- and 15-year-olds who had committed crimes for which they could have been tried as adults before 1999.

A place would have to be built for these older, more violent youths. Rigsby picked a site at Dermott.

Rigsby's plan took shape. He needed to remodel some buildings at Alexander, tear down one dorm, close three others, and build one 80-bed state-of-the-art secure dorm.

He also began pricing electronic surveillance systems to be set up at Alexander and the camps. Eventually, all the facilities will be monitored from downtown Little Rock.

Most of all, he needed to find a way to get the children into treatment programs, keeping only those delinquents that DYS could help.

To do all this, he restructured the staff. His plan called for 45 new jobs, but eliminated 38 other jobs - 28 of which were held by black employees. The new jobs called for more training. The system would increasingly depend on midlevel and upper-management employees interacting with the children.

Rigsby soon found himself defending that plan before a Children and Youth subcommittee chaired by Rep. Wilkins. It was not a pleasant meeting.

Rigsby made an opening statement and then was quizzed by legislators.

"The question today is, in this whole process, have you looked at gender, race and years of service? If an employee has 25 years and an excellent evaluation, does that not have any meaning in your configuration?" Wilkins asked.

"I'm restricted by DHS policy from reaching out and doing anything about saving certain jobs for certain people," Rigsby said. "The problems are not the fault of the staff, they are the fault of the system. I'm in the process of changing the entire system. This is a necessary reduction. If these employees qualify, they can apply for the new jobs."

Wilkins was not appeased. "These employees did not have evaluations for three years. ... They were set up to fail."

Later, Wilkins told the Democrat-Gazette, "As part of his reorganization, Mr. Rigsby decided he will take a whole section of an agency highly populated by African-Americans and put those people out of work.

"My concern is that it [any layoffs] be done in a just and fair manner and still do what needs to be done to move the agency forward and help the children."

Rigsby also talked after the hearing to the Democrat-Gazette. "This is not discrimination. Where I see discrimination, I will act on it. Where it is alleged and there is none, I will defend my actions."

Judge Goodson reviewed Charles' DYS files. Goodson had gambled by placing the boy at DYS. And everyone had lost.

"This was an unusual case," Goodson said. "I don't normally commit kids for things like ringing doorbells and harassing people after curfew. I would have chewed most kids out and sent them home."

Charles' mother also has a low IQ and there is little to no supervision at her home for Charles or his five brothers and sisters, Goodson said.

"I had tried to get the Developmental Disabilities Services [a division of DHS] to take Charles a number of times. I've been really frustrated with what I perceive to be a lack of cooperation by DDS in this case and other cases."

Goodson had hopes that DYS would place Charles in a special center to deal with his limitations.

"I had absolutely run out of alternatives when I sent him to DYS. It was my sincere hope that they would send him to some place like Millcreek of Arkansas [in Fordyce]. I took a chance and I don't think that will happen again."

When Charles arrived at DYS, clinical psychologist Paul Deyoub evaluated him.

"At the very least, he has to be placed in a group home and in the Division of Children and Family Services custody with DDS services," Deyoub wrote.

His conclusion: "What I do not recommend is returning home. ... He will run the street and commit more offenses."

After six months at Alexander, Charles was sent home to his mother in December 1999.

"A boy like that couldn't thrive at DYS. In fact, he would be preyed upon with that IQ," said Rigsby. "We're supposed to send kids home better than when they arrived. Until I get some treatment for kids like Charles, he'd just be a victim here."

John Brownlee crouched down, contorting his 6-foot-2-inch frame, to talk to one of the girls through a vent at the bottom of the door.

"She was lying on her arm as someone might do to watch TV," Brownlee said. "A lot of the girls call out when I walk by. They just want to talk."

Brownlee was visiting START, the girls' dorm at the Alexander campus. It houses up to 28 girls. Although there is a small glass window at the top of the door, many of the girls prefer to talk through the floor vent because it is easier to hear.

This particular girl weighed 275 pounds, was often violent and had threatened to kill herself. She had a normal IQ. She had been in at least four residential treatment facilities and numerous shelters and foster homes. She had attacked people with knives and chairs.

"She didn't belong with us," Brownlee said. "There are some really bad, disruptive kids out here. We're the end of the line. We don't have a right of refusal to reject a kid.

"We'll send them to the State Hospital for a while. It's a reprieve for the staff. We're running up a white flag. 'Can you help us out?' One week we had 17 sex offenders awaiting placement. It's a hodgepodge."

Brownlee's concerns are not only for the children.

"Sometimes I feel like the staff is all alone. There are some good staff here. There is a lot of finding fault with DYS but very little 'How can we help you?'"

From March 1 through May 26, the campus census fluctuated between 163 and 195. During those three months, 302 children were released, mostly to ease overcrowding.

"Our capacity on the cottages was 32. I think we were up to 39. I had heard some stories that we had reached the 40s," Brownlee said. "It's hard to work on some higher order of change like rehabilitation when you've got to work on safety, security and shelter.

"If you have two workers on a cottage and you have 39 kids, the workers are concerned for their safety as well as the child's safety. All that is compromised."

Rigsby ordered the census to be limited to approximately 135 children. That meant more early releases of children. He also began plans to remodel the girls' dorm and replace the doors.

"There's nothing more deplorable than to walk down the hallway and see a face through a vent on the floor," he said.

The crowding took its toll.

The staff used mechanical restraints 56 times on children causing problems from January to May, according to computer records.

That is too often, according to Brownlee, Rigsby and others. But, they said, it's hard to fault workers trying to protect themselves and other children.

"These juveniles are very adept at reaching in and getting to the core of what bothers you," Rigsby said. "And then it inflames the staff, and the staff takes it to the next level - abuse.

"Once a juvenile draws you into his cell and dares you to settle him down, you're inviting combat, and you end up crossing the line before you know it."

Rigsby recalled watching a minister chase a boy across the grounds at the Harrisburg wilderness camp.

"The minister had murder in his eyes," Rigsby said. "The boy had been making constant remarks about the minister's wife."

Violent incidents continued during the year.

Sept. 29, 1999: Two separate fistfights within minutes as students were leaving school.

Oct. 4, 1999: Linda Grover, youth services worker, was knocked to the floor as other staff tried to break up a fight in the cafeteria. She suffered bruised ribs and a skull fracture.

Oct. 12, 1999: A boy was attacked by another boy in school. His nose was broken and he was kicked in the head.

Nov. 3, 1999: Circuit-Chancery Judge Gary Arnold of Benton sentenced James Lee Humble, 18, to four years in prison for the sexual assault of a 12-year-old boy at the Alexander center in February 1999.

The violence was not unexpected. Some of the most violent offenders had to be placed in the general population.

On Sept. 7, 1999, 15 boys were waiting in other dorms for a spot in JUMP, the 25-bed maximum-security dorm for the most dangerous boys.

By the first of February, nearly four months later, eight of them were still waiting to go to JUMP; one had turned 18 and had been released; one had gone back to court on adult charges; five had made it to JUMP.

Meanwhile, the myriad unsolved problems spilled into the classrooms.

Dean Newell, 43, runs the school for Rivendell Management Co., which replaced the DYS teachers in December 1998.

"It's a shell game. You have 150 kids, and you start busting at the seams," he said. "This facility is out of control."

Out of 700 children, one-third either requires long-term psychiatric care, or are mentally ill or mentally retarded, he said.

"We deal with children who should be on medication, but aren't," he said. "These misplaced kids are put in with gangsters and thugs. There are gang fights and racial issues.

"The staff feels helpless and hopeless," he said. "There are real safety and security issues."

Newell clashed with DYS administrators over how far the school should go to keep children in class who are cursing, fighting and threatening other students and teachers.

"The mandate from DYS is 'Come hell or high water, these kids are going to be in school,'" he said.

A series of e-mails in 1999 between Newell and DYS administrators over the past year was obtained under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. The e-mails reflect the chaos caused by the mix of children.

April 21: From Newell to DYS

We received in class today a student from the Arkansas State Hospital where he was kicked out. His behavior is totally non-compliant, threatening toward other students both verbally and physically and disruptive.

May 21, 9:21 a.m.

From Newell to DYS

Due to student's history of self abusive behavior, I feel it is in the best interest of everyone concerned that he be held either on the dorm or intake until resolution is made. As you know, he cut himself up pretty badly with a piece of glass and having him work outside would allow too many chances for him to find something else to hurt himself again.

May 21, 1:43 p.m.

DYS Answer:

This young man was discharged today. There should not be any further problems with him working.

June 4: From Teacher to Newell

Student [name] is continually forcing me to eject him from class. If I ignore him he simply gets louder and more malicious until I am forced to correct him. If I start out correcting him he simply escalates his behavior until I again am forced to put him out.

Once out of the classroom he wanders the hall, into the library and into other classes. DYS does not correct him or try to control him.

His behavior includes belching, shoving desks around the room, scooting desk to make noise, rudeness and obscenity. I have ejected student five out of the last seven school days.

Sept. 22: From Russell Rigsby to George McNutt

Let Mr. Newell know that we don't have expulsion capabilities. Alternative classroom instruction must be made available. These folks did not contract for mainstream children. He [student] is not to be kicked out.

McNutt said that Rivendell was obligated to provide an education for all the students.

"We felt that the school was putting an exceptional amount of kids out of class and not taking them back in," McNutt said. "We wanted to make sure they were educated and not just supervised on the dorm."

A year has passed since Rigsby took over DYS. The blueprint is slowly taking shape as promised.

In February, DYS began moving disruptive students to an alternate classroom in the dorms. They will face an intensified program working on social skills and anger management as well as education. "This makes me optimistic," Newell said.

In May, renovations will begin at the Alexander campus. Also, a building will be renovated at the Mansfield serious-offender program to hold the female offenders now at the Alexander campus.

In July, DYS and the Division of Mental Health Services will open a 16-bed unit at the State Hospital. It will provide long-term treatment of youths with psychiatric and behavioral problems. Only boys between 13 and 17 years old who have been committed to DYS by the juvenile courts will be eligible.

Rigsby's new management team has been assembled.

Charles Waddell of Tacoma, Wash., was hired in November as facility director at the Alexander campus.

Thomas Pitts of Pensacola, Fla., is facility administrator at the Alexander campus.

Bernays B. Malin Jr. of El Dorado will oversee DYS's bid for accreditation from the American Correctional Association.

John Brownlee has left DYS to be director of the MidSOUTH Training Academy at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The academy provides staff development and continuing education for alcohol and drug abuse counselors and employees of the Division of Children and Family Services.

George McNutt has been promoted to the DYS Little Rock office as assistant director of programs and operations.

Many of the 38 staff members affected by the reorganization have found other state jobs or had been accepted at new jobs with DYS. Only one person has been terminated so far, McNutt said.

Rep. Wilkins is "much more comfortable" about the reorganization after meeting Waddell. "I'm going to take him at his word that he is doing everything possible for the staff and to care for the needs of our children," Wilkins said.

Rigsby's program has received high marks from Rep. Sue Madison, D-Fayetteville, and Sen. Mike Ross, D-Prescott, who were co-chairmen of the legislative hearings in 1998 on DYS problems.

"Russell has very high standards and lots of enthusiasm," Madison said. "I have a lot of confidence in him."

Added Ross, "DYS has been a kids' prison. Russell is moving the state toward meaningful rehabilitation. He truly wants to change DYS, and it needed to be changed in a lot of ways."

Rigsby continues to make the rounds of legislative committees and judicial chambers to explain his vision.

"The changes are slow in coming and that is frustrating and painful. I can't make quick changes," Rigsby said. "The kids can't afford that. The whole system can't afford that. I have to make sure what I do reeks of stability when it is completed.

"But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And soon, what we did yesterday, we'll be doing it the same way today," he said.

"It's a fight. But in the end, it's all about saving our kids."

Judge Goodson was worried about Charles getting into serious trouble with an older brother when Charles returned home from Alexander.

"Individually, the two brothers are harmless," Goodson said. "But together they take on a new identity. If the older brother decided to doing something, Charles would probably follow his lead."

Goodson's district covers six counties, the biggest geographical district in the state.

"I see 3,000 kids in a year's time. I've told kids, 'If I see you and recognize you, it's not good. But if I know your name, it's even worse.' Charles is one of the few kids whose name I know."

Charles' probation officer spotted him in January riding a bicycle near the courthouse during school hours. The boy has been taken to juvenile court several times since his release.

What does the future hold for Charles?

"It's hard to say. I just take the case as it comes to court that day and make the best decision of what options are before me at that time," Goodson said.

Will Rigsby's plan help Charles and the others like him?

"I don't know," Goodson said. "We're all waiting with bated breath."

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