Judges raise alarm over Hennepin County’s closure of sole youth correctional facility

By: - September 29, 2021 8:16 am

One of the “cottages” at the Hennepin County Home School in Minnetonka, where juvenile offenders have been sent for over a century. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Just two boys remain on the sprawling, 139-acre wooded campus of the Hennepin County Home School in Minnetonka, which for over a century has housed kids guilty of armed robbery, rape and other serious crimes.

When the facility closes for good early next year — or likely sooner — there will be no other like it in the Twin Cities, the result of a shift in approach to juvenile offenders that aims to keep young people out of correctional facilities at all costs.

“This forces us to do more community specific programming related to the needs of the child,” said Mark Thompson, the assistant Hennepin County administrator for public safety.

But some judges say while they celebrate the dwindling number of kids sent to the County Home School in recent years, its complete closure without a local alternative is unworkable and already backfiring.

Because the two remaining facilities in the metro area — in Anoka and Dakota counties — are often at capacity, kids are often kept in a detention center for weeks while awaiting a stable placement, or sent to the more restrictive program in Red Wing or even farther from home.

“Not everyone can be in the community,” said Hennepin County District Judge Tanya Bransford. “People argue that we should just not have any children detained. That’s not reality. If you have people charged with murder, they have to be detained.”

Bransford was the first Black woman to serve as a District Court Referee for Hennepin County’s Juvenile Division back in 1990 and led the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which reduced the number of young people sent to detention. She said she chose to return to juvenile court — considered among the least prestigious assignments — because she cared about kids caught up in the justice system.

As much as she’s worked to keep kids out of institutions, in some cases, there’s no choice, she said. There are children who have been involved in shootings and pose a danger to others or would be in danger themselves if they returned home. There are kids who have sexually or physically abused a family member. There are kids who are homeless and have nowhere else to go to.

“There’s a small subset of youth who need to be in an out-of-home placement for a limited time,” Bransford said. “I’m concerned that they’re going to wind up being sent out of state or other places that we don’t have control over.”

The move to close the facility without a replacement illustrates the challenge of doing away with juvenile correctional facilities altogether, even as they’ve fallen out of favor with judges, probation officers and elected officials alike.

Sarah Davis, executive director of The Legal Rights Center, applauded the closure.

“Placing children outside of their community in youth correctional facilities causes a lot of harm and leads to negative outcomes,” Davis said.

Over the past decade, the number of kids sent to Hennepin County Home School has dwindled from 157 in 2016 to just 50 in 2020. That’s made running a facility built to house more than 150 boys and girls inefficient during difficult budget times: the County Home School’s operating budget this year is $9.7 million despite its current roster of two.

Then there’s the opportunity cost: The land alone is valued at $31.9 million, and both the city of Minnetonka and the Three Rivers Parks District have expressed interest in the property, Thompson said.

“Having a campus with about a dozen buildings for 15 to 25 kids is not a good idea economically for taxpayers and it isn’t good for the kids because you can’t do programming for 15-25 kids who have different issues,” Thompson said.

Hennepin County Home School wasn’t designed to be like a prison for young people. Kids live in “cottages” set in the rolling hills in one of the wealthiest Twin Cities suburbs. Its next door neighbor is a golf course.

There’s no barbed wire fences or guard towers — only the chain link fence and security cameras give away that the property might house juvenile offenders.

The ethos of the facility is focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment, and offers kids counseling, chemical dependency treatment, family therapy and other services.

Over the past decade, judges and probation officers across the state have moved away from residential facilities, even those with the grandest aims.

Research supports this shift and shows kids can do better when they’re able to remain at home or in “community-based” programs while under supervision of the state.

Many juvenile correctional facilities also have shoddy track records and have been marred by scandal, like the now-defunct Mesabi Academy, where staff allowed kids as young as 12 to participate in a “fight club.” It shut down in 2016 after reports that staff covered up sexual abuse allegations, while government officials looked past reports of maltreatment and safety violations.

In Ramsey County’s now-shuttered Totem Town, a mental health therapist helped a teenager escape and had sex with him at her home.

But even while they agreed to use the Hennepin County Home School less, judges described the May 2020 county announcement as a fait accompli.

“There was no warning. There was no input from any judges,” said Hennepin County District Court Judge Kathryn Quaintance.

“They never got our approval,” Bransford said. “And we don’t approve. At least I don’t approve, and most of the juvenile court judges do not approve.”

Two branches of government are now in conflict. Bransford said district court judges must be consulted about changes to the county home school under state law, which says “the plans, location, equipment, and operation of the county home school shall in all cases have the approval of the (district court) judges.”

The county disagrees. Thompson pointed to a different state statute that the county’s attorneys say “supersedes” the one Bransford cited. That law gives power to the head of corrections to control funding for their corrections programs.

In any case, Bransford takes issue with the decision being made without public discussion or a vote by the Board of Commissioners.

Hennepin County Board Chair Marion Greene said county staff are often empowered to make decisions on important matters without a vote of the board. Although the closure was never officially brought to the board, she said they were aware of the decision and supported it.

And Greene said the move comes after years of public debate.

“The community said, ‘Do not invest further in these spaces,’” Greene said. “It was loud and clear.”

In 2013, the County Board began studying alternatives to the County Home School. For a moment, it seemed possible that they would open a new facility with Ramsey County. But that was scrapped in favor of a focus on community-based programs.

“It should have been closed eight years ago,” said Thompson for the county.

Ramsey County closed its facility, Boys Totem Town, in 2019 while Woodland Hills in Duluth closed earlier this year.

With Anoka and Dakota facilities at capacity, that leaves Moorhead, Bemidji and Red Wing, which is run by the state’s Department of Corrections and considered a last resort.

“Red Wing is for the high-needs, high-risk kids,” Quaintance said.

Bransford, the juvenile judge, said the County Home School’s staff diversity made it a more appropriate setting for the diverse group of Hennepin County children sent there.

“The County Home School had excellent staff that reflected the diversity of the county,” she said.

Bransford said she worries about sending a kid who’s Black or Latino or comes from an immigrant background so far away. Both because the staff may not be culturally competent, but also because many families won’t be able to participate in the treatment.

“It needs to be close enough so that you can engage the family members in the treatment,” Bransford said. “I don’t know that the county commissioners or the people in charge really know the full effect that this is going to have.”

County staff and juvenile justice reform advocates counter that as long as the county funds correctional facilities, they will find a way to fill them.

“Probation will continue to recommend it. Judges will continue to order it, until it’s not an option anymore. And now it’s not an option, and so folks are forced into a position where we have to think differently,” said Davis of The Legal Rights Center.

Asked about the prospect of kids being sent to worse programs far away from home, Thompson, the assistant county administrator, was not so certain.

“We’ll see how that plays out,” Thompson said. “Most kids don’t wind up in Red Wing. And if you’re going to warehouse kids, shouldn’t you warehouse them in a place where they might have more programming because of the capacity and the economy of scale of the program?”

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.