Housing juvenile offenders in Amargosa debated

Tom Metscher, the head of Nye County juvenile probation, admitted he crosses his fingers and toes every time juvenile offenders are transported on the long trip to the Don Goforth Juvenile Resources Center in Hawthorne 275 miles north on Highway 95.

Most serious offenders make the trip to Fallon, 70 miles past that.

The new adult detention center that opened in Pahrump last year solved the problem of sheriff’s deputies having to transport longer term county jail inmates to Tonopah. But juvenile probation continues to pay a contract driver $16 per hour to take juveniles on a nine-hour transport to Hawthorne.

Metscher suggested to county commissioners Tuesday that non-secure detention placements could be sent to the Northwest Academy in Amargosa Valley, 35 miles from Pahrump, instead of the Hawthorne facility the county has been using for the last 15 years. The Northwest Academy was formerly the Horizon Academy, a private boarding school for at-risk teenagers.

Metscher’s proposal would place low or moderate risk male and female offenders in need of alternative placement outside their home or community at Northwest Academy. Youths with suicidal tendencies, violent or aggressive behavior, severe emotional or physical disabilities and sex offenders would still be sent north.

Metscher said the staff in Mineral County has been fantastic, it’s purely a logistical move.

“This is related to a logistical arrangement that will make things a lot more comfortable for the youth that we serve. About 90 percent of the juveniles from Nye County are from Pahrump that are held in the facility. It certainly made sense to look at a community-based resource,” Metscher told commissioners.

In the 2011-12 fiscal year, 222 juveniles were housed in juvenile detention for 2,701 detention days at an annual cost of $341,387, according to a report from Metscher’s department. That amount is a sharp increase from detention costs below $300,000 per year the three previous years. The peak number of offenders in the last seven years was 297 in the 2005-06 fiscal year.

The daily cost of housing juveniles would be about the same, Metscher said, but the county would save on transportation. He also pointed to other non-financial rewards for the youths.

“The difference is of course in the cost for transportation; the cost associated with having more community-oriented services, to where we can incorporate more family intervention, have more people readily available here locally to provide a better service to the kids we’re trying to assist. Also we have challenges throughout the year when we’re trying to transport children to Hawthorne, which is about a five-hour, one-way trip. You do a round trip and those add up very quickly. This new arrangement would take any weather-related problems out of the mix. It would allow us to operate more efficiently in reference to when we have to supervise kids prior to or during transport,” he said.

The Northwest Academy has an existing long-term program and many of their youths are from Pahrump who have been in detention centers, Metscher said. His written proposal noted the Northwest Academy provides a behavioral health model with a focus on personal development, life skills, communication and educational achievement. It is a Medicaid-funded, behavioral health facility utilizing a day treatment model but providing 24-hour, seven day per week programming.

Youths that would have been sent to Hawthorne would be housed in two dormitories with eight beds apiece.

“We’ve actually been doing business with the juvenile court system here for approximately three years. We occupy an existing facility that was in Amargosa Valley and it’s a 25-acre property,” Northwest Academy owner Marcel Chappuis told commissioners. “The property has 25 dorm rooms. We have a full-sized gym, academically we are a fully-accredited high school and we right now have a population of between 30 and 40 kids. The original private facilities on the property at times had up to 200 children. We don’t do that. The population, we have a strictly Medicaid referral, juvenile court referral kids. These are medium risk kids, they are not extremely violent, mentally disturbed kids.”

Horizon Academy had opened at the site of a former hotel on Highway 373 in Amargosa Valley. That academy moved to La Verkin, Utah.

Northwest Academy works with youths that still have a chance, Chappuis said, they emphasize academics and letting residents earn their high school diploma or General Equivalency Degree (GED). The offenders sent there by the Nye County Juvenile Probation Department would be segregated from their general population, but participate in the school program, he said.

“We feel it is a good fit for us because most of the kids we have from Pahrump actually went through that process and have gone up to Hawthorne, back and forth, back and forth,” Chappuis said.

Chappuis performs a psychological evaluation of each student enrolled at the Northwest Academy. Students attend therapy groups which deal with issues like chemical dependency, anger management and interpersonal skills, according to the academy website. Students are offered one-on-one therapy sessions with a counselor and Chappuis.

Northwest Academy website states students learn how to deal with personal problems, build trustworthy relationships and set and achieve goals. “They also begin to show appreciation and gratefulness for everything they have, that which personifies Northwest Academy’s values: family morals, respect for self, personal and cultural integrity, determination for excellence.”

Metscher told commissioner Dan Schinhofen actually daily fees for housing youths at Northwest Academy would have to be worked out after further analysis on staff costs. A higher population allows a more efficient use of staff, he said.

The daily rate for housing juvenile offenders in Hawthorne was raised to $116 in October 2011. At the time then county commissioner Joni Eastley asked about shipping juvenile offenders to Clark County, Metscher said he didn’t want to co-mingle Nye County juveniles with Clark County’s offenders. Metscher talked about using the Horizon Academy back then, but said some work would need to be done first.

District Attorney Brian Kunzi said a contract would have to be prepared because of liability issues and other concerns. But commissioners endorsed the concept.

Commissioner Lorinda Wichman said there’s liability with the present situation.

“Consider you’ve got staff on the road five hours each way with children. The liability is immense. It has always bothered me,” she said.

Commission Chairman Butch Borasky invited Sheriff Tony DeMeo to speak. DeMeo said they have concerns due to juveniles walking away from Horizon Academy. The Amargosa Valley substation is not manned on a 24/7 basis, he said.

“We actually had to bring in additional deputies when they had walkaways to go out and do a search,” DeMeo said.

The sheriff’s department had contact with violent individuals who come into their first contact with law enforcement, he said.

“If they happen to have a little disagreement in the middle of the night, the Nye County Sheriff’s department will have to call out people on overtime, two deputies probably in order to address this concern,” DeMeo said.

Lt. Frank Jarvis, the area commander of the Beatty substation hasn’t been consulted yet on the plan, he said.

“I have the same concerns with juveniles going up the highways. We also have to address the fact there may be some issues that were not brought to task that may be the responsibility of the Nye County sheriff’s department. I have to admit the walkaways are not as frequent as they once were, but nevertheless they are the responsibility of the Nye County sheriff’s department that substation and that area commander’s budget,” DeMeo said.

Wichman said the sheriff’s concerns would have to be incorporated into the contract. Metscher admitted the Mineral County Sheriff’s Department has had to deal with escape attempts by juveniles from the Hawthorne facility.

Chappuis, who said he was a psychologist with the juvenile court system in Salt Lake City for 30 years, said the previous facility in Amargosa Valley housed up to 200 kids, they only house 30 to 40.

“We recognize the risks involved with this juvenile probation,” he said. “Since we’ve taken over we’d had one walk away.”

Most of their contact with the sheriff’s department has been mandatory reporting of someone who enters their facility with a history of sex or physical abuse, Chappuis said.

Commissioner Donna Cox said Nye County needs to think about a county juvenile detention center.

“This has been a long time coming and what I would really like to see is all the kids brought down here. We really need a juvenile facility to house all the medium and the bad kids from Pahrump, No. 1 because of the drive. This is going to help with some of the kids but we’re still going to have some kids we’re going to have to transport and I hate to see them be so far from their family. You have to remember they’re still children,” Cox said.

PVT staff members assisted in reporting this story.

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