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Kansas programs aren't helping every runaway foster kid, so they land in jail cells

 The barbed wire fence outside of the Geary County Secure Care facility
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
The Geary County Secure Care facility is one of the last places in the state that specializes in runaway kids.

Geary County Secure Care can be ‘the last hope for these youth.’ But others say the jail-like facility only makes things worse.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Foster children who run away too much aren't supposed to end up in a jail cell.

But in Kansas they do.

They land in a facility in Junction City called Geary County Secure Care. There, kids sleep in jails cells, wear prison-style jumpsuits and guards who patrol a youth jail also patrol the secure care, lawyers for foster kids say.

These kids aren’t technically in jail, though. Secure care is a type of foster care placement, and the Junction City location shares space with a youth jail holding kids who broke the law. The two facilities are separate, but critics of the program say there is little difference between them.

Lawyers who represent those kids say the facility fails to meet basic needs. Kids get little time outside, don’t have access to products like skin lotion unless it is prescribed and children even have to share underwear.

“They have a pool of underwear and they just wear whatever is available,” said Michelle Brown, who worked on foster care cases in Geary County for the last 17 years before she retired last summer.

Staff there denied those allegations and said hygiene, clothing and enrichment is offered to the kids.

The facility is at the heart of a debate over how to treat these troubled foster kids who run away from homes. Critics say sending them to what is effectively a jail doesn’t help them overcome problems like drug addiction.

But there aren’t many other options in Kansas, and if they run away they can become victims of violence, victims of human trafficking or even end up dead.

This secure care facility is one of the last places in the state that specializes in runaway kids, a service badly needed because of the risks runaways face.

Kids are sent to secure care when they violate a no-run order. Those orders are given to children who have already run, and serve as a warning that if the kids run again, they will be put in a higher-security placement. Secure care workers say most of the children in its custody have a criminal history, but a criminal history is not the main reason a child is placed there.

Lawyers for foster children, like Brown, say some kids only go there because they have nowhere else to go.

Brown said one child she knew was addicted to drugs and needed treatment, but the state only has one provider that helps drug-addicted youth and it has a six-month waiting list. Because the child was liable to run, she was put in secure care and locked away in a cell each night even though she had no criminal history severe enough to warrant detention.

But some people defend the practice.

“A lot of case managers are begging us saying, ‘Hey, you’re the last hope for these youth,’” said Shawn Brandmahl, executive director of the North Central Kansas Regional Juvenile Detention Facility. “No non-secure facility can handle runaways.”

He said the kids in Geary County have tried other therapeutic alternatives. They didn’t work.

“Allowing a kid to just run loose and hope things work out for them is a real bad idea,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe some of the kids that we get in here — they’re just completely self-destructive. We do, I think, save their lives.”

The front of the Geary County Secure Care building.
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service

Why is Geary County Secure Care in a jail?

Secure care doesn’t have to be in a youth jail. It only needs to be a facility that kids can’t get out of.

The state used to have three total secure care facilities, and the other two programs were not in correctional facilities. But those locations closed. Lawyers for foster kids also had troubles with those facilities. One lawyer said a different secure care facility couldn’t guarantee weekly mental health treatment.

The youth jail in Junction City doubles as a secure care facility because the jail had extra space after lawmakers approved juvenile justice reforms about seven years ago. Kansas legislators wanted to stop warehousing kids and the subsequent bill they passed was more careful about how they locked kids up.

Testimony from former state Sen. Greg Smith in 2016 said the state’s penal system had “inappropriate assignment of youths to detention facilities … and overreliance on lengthy periods of incarceration.”

After the law passed, fewer kids went to detention and the youth jail in Junction City had beds available. That’s when the facility was split up with part of it converted to secure care.

“The rooms are pretty much still the same,” Brandmahl said. “So I guess, in terms of the environment, it does look very similar.”

That’s what angers critics of the Junction City facility. They said secure care is a loophole in the youth justice reform passed in 2016. That law said kids should not be detained for more than 45 days per case, yet stays in secure care can last up to six months.

A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found children who are detained are 13% less likely to graduate high school and 23% more likely to go to jail or prison as an adult.

A National Institute of Health study found that detaining children leads to poorer health outcomes when they grow up, including higher rates of depression and suicidal thoughts.

Mike Fonkert, campaign director with the advocacy group Kansas Appleseed, said the state needs to be cautious when it decides to detain kids because it’s rare that detention is best for children.

“The focus really should be finding creative and innovative ways to deliver positive stuff to kids in communities,” Fonkert said.

He generally opposes putting kids in secure care, but he said he might change his mind if the facility provided data showing kids are doing better once they leave. That data doesn’t appear to exist.

The facility itself doesn’t track that information. Brandmahl said it lacks the capacity to do so and the Department for Children and Families didn’t provide anything when asked.

Brandmahl has anecdotal success stories. He said one kid wanted to come back once they left.

Brandmahl said his facility doesn’t just lock kids up, it provides therapy and substance use treatment. Kids can also earn their GED. Staff hope to someday offer group therapy, something not offered now.

Brandmahl said this program provides discipline and structure no other facility has, and he said the kids need it.

“I’ve got 16 kids in here that aren’t used to being told what to do, (they have) pretty much done whatever they wanted to do because they had no real supervision,” he said. “We have to try to provide structure and boundaries to these kids.”

The 16-bed facility also has a waiting list.

“The fact that so many judges across the state of Kansas are desperate to get these kids in our facility should be enough evidence that this facility serves the needs of youth,” he said.

Lack of options

Critics of secure care would like to see it moved out of the jail. They also say addressing the lack of services across the state is another serious issue.

There are four major types of alternatives to secure care: psychiatric residential treatment centers, qualified residential treatment centers, therapeutic foster homes or juvenile crisis centers.

Kansas has zero youth crisis centers and only a dozen therapeutic foster homes. Psychiatric treatment has a 90-day waitlist.

Foster parent Lucas Shivers said those options usually aren’t available. Shivers has taken in hundreds of kids. He estimates about 15-25% were higher needs kids who had some criminal history or running problem. Those kids often can’t get the help they need.

“It's a big capacity issue,” he said. “At every level there are bottlenecks.”

This can lead to kids bouncing around the system. Children start in foster homes, but the foster family might not be able to help them. Foster care agencies then need to find another placement for them.

If the alternatives are full or if the child has already gone through them, that can mean kids end up in secure care.

Shivers said there needs to be more support for foster families to create additional homes that can handle higher-needs children.

“We cannot train enough to keep even with those dropping off. So we’re in a sinking hole,” he said. “It is a bottomless pit of not having nearly enough homes or families that are meeting the needs.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.
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