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Boys home in Pratt closed because of ineffective system

Courtney Blankenship
A business decision mandated the closing of the Pratt County Achievement Place, the last facility of it's kind in the state. The multi-room house goes up for auction next Monday, June 8, at 104 N. Oak in Pratt.

The Pratt County Achievement Place [PCAP] building will be put to auction by Hamm Auction and Real Estate, LLC on June 8 after having closed its doors in 2019 by board decision. The PCAP facility was the last of its kind in the state of Kansas after all other Youth Residential Care II [YRC II] facilities were gradually closed across the state over the years.

Randy Bowman, executive director of public affairs with the Kansas Department of Corrections, said that stakeholders in county governments, courts and law enforcement, really started taking a closer look at the effectiveness of the Kansas juvenile justice system and used national data to evaluate the system.

“Kansas was at the wrong end of those kinds of statistics,” Bowman said. “Looking at the cost of that, looking at the effectiveness of that.”

Senate Bill 367, which introduced sweeping reforms to the Kansas juvenile justice system, was enacted in the 2016 legislative session with a comprehensive list of changes to implement after being signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback.

“Senate Bill 367 reformed everything from decision making by a law enforcement officer about even to arrest the child, made changes with schools in terms of trying to get schools to be effective in responding to school-based behavior instead of criminalizing that behavior, then diversion and intermediate intervention programs were put into place,” Bowman said. “One of the two state correctional facilities was closed as a result of these reforms — it was like a 70-something page bill that touched basically A to Z of the juvenile justice system. Group homes were just a part of that whole change.”

The Juvenile Services section of the Kansas Department of Corrections website states that “individuals as young as ten years of age and as old as 17 years of age may be adjudicated as juvenile offenders in Kansas. State law allows the KDOC to retain custody of a juvenile offender until the age of 22 ½ in a juvenile correctional facility and the age of 23 in the community.”

Maintaining a contract with the Kansas Department of Corrections [KDOC], the Pratt County Achievement Place was a facility that housed male juveniles who came from across the state.

According to the January 15, 2015, Cost Study of Youth Residential Centers for Juvenile Offenders document submitted by Kansas Department of Corrections, YRC II programs provide ‘a non-secure residential service’ and aim to teach youth social skills, ways to cope, and decision making practices. They also aim to ‘address underlying problems affecting the youth’ to aid their successful transitions back to their communities and avoid future placements in more highly structured facilities.

Former Pratt police Chief Gary Myers said that in his time with the police department, they never had major issues in crime with the Pratt County Achievement Center.

“There would be fights up there from time to time but nothing — no serious, no aggravated battery accounts of anybody, you know, using any type of a weapon against one another,” Myers said. “Then, there was a long period of time where we never had any issues and never got any calls.”

Myers said that reports of runaway juveniles were one of the main issues he could recall and that there were a few incidents of vehicles that were reported missing at the same time.

“I can’t recall exactly how many times, but it became kind of an issue that when any one of the kids would run away, we’d end up with somebody losing their car,” Myers said. “Somebody, you know, would leave their keys in their vehicle, and so, it was suspected that they were taking the vehicles but other than that, any serious crime — no, not really.”

Overall, however, Myers said he never had any concerns about violent crime taking place with PCAP and felt that the neighborhood was safe.

“That facility there in Pratt believed in what they did,” Bowman said. “They hung in there, so as others were going off, they accepted the tough referrals is something I will always give that organization credit for. They took much tougher kids at the end than they were taking early on.”

As the reform was implemented across the state and the number of juveniles being referred to the out-of-home facilities was decreasing, Bowman said the facilities gradually decided to start closing. “Low-risk” juveniles were being served in their communities, which left higher-risk individuals with more serious offenses to be placed by the courts in facilities like the Pratt County Achievement Place.

“I don’t know that we [KDOC] ever shut anybody down,” Bowman said. “They just made business decisions as the business need was changing — just supply and demand worked fairly well in that instance.”

Some facilities were governed by boards as the Pratt County Achievement Place was, Bowman said, but most of the facilities were formatted as traditional CEO structured companies or sole proprietorship companies and made decisions that way. KDOC paid a contracted daily rate to the facilities.

“We just let them opt out and cancel their contracts when they decided that they wanted to either close or go do something else,” Bowman said. “Several of them closed, some of them moved over to serving child welfare populations.”

The Pratt facility was able to stay open as so many others had closed by adapting their model to adjust to the changes and overall, Bowman said the Pratt facility did its best but it just was not enough to overcome the data findings and cost analysis.

“It’s not like they were ill-intended or trying to do the wrong thing — they did good things in many aspects but the evidence nationally over 10, 15, 20 years demonstrated over and over kids have better results if they stay in the family,” Bowman said. “You work with them and their family and their school — keep them in the community instead of separating them from, say Wichita, and plunking them down in Pratt, Kansas.”

Over the years, several changes have been made to the Kansas juvenile justice system as well as within the departments themselves. The Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority was merged into the Kansas Department of Corrections by an executive order in 2013, Bowman said.

“We had, at one point in time in 2012, over 400 children or adolescents in those group homes across the state of Kansas on a given day,” Bowman said. “Through all those efforts over those years — by the time Pratt closed late in 2019, we were down to less than ten.”

One issue with removing juveniles from their communities and placing them in towns that they have no connection to, Bowman said, is that the model seemed to function as a way to just ‘get them out of town’ rather than to work with the juveniles and guide them in their own communities.

An issue that was very prevalent among these out-of-home placements, Bowman said, was the high rate of those who left the facilities without permission — otherwise known as AWOL.

“One of the interesting things that has happened is that kids don’t run from their homes at nearly the rate they ran from these group homes. So, were they running back home to where it’s familiar? Some of them were,” Bowman said. “Were some of them running away because they didn’t think living in a congregate environment with a bunch of other teenagers was comfortable or even sometimes safe?”

The Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee publishes annual reports that are available online to oversee the implementation of Senate Bill 367 reform measures, Bowman said.

“One of the interesting things that gets said by folks sometimes but isn’t factually supported by data is that crime has gone up since these reforms happened,” Bowman said. “And the data, in fact, reflects it [crime] continues to go down with these kids being served in their homes, in their communities with evidence-based programs and practices instead of in out-of-home places.”

Though it will take some time to accumulate and compile strong recidivism data, Bowman said the number of arrests by law enforcement and the number of intakes have gone down as the reform intended.

“The data is showing we’re headed in the right direction as a state with these reforms but it’s new enough it changed how the system works from decades of practice, and you don’t get everybody to understand that change, and be comfortable with that change, and confident in that change in a short period of time,” Bowman said. “Reforming something is a multi-year, if not 5, 10, 15 year process. Hopefully in 10 or 15 years, everybody who works in the system will only know this as the practice it is. They won’t know that old history, and then hopefully, the evidence will get stronger. There will be another set of reforms in the next 5, 10, 15 years that [shows] what’s the next way to further improve the likelihood that young people are successful adults.”

Pratt County Achievement Place board members refused to comment on the closing of the boys home, deflecting all information to their attorney Tom Black. Black indicated he would be willing to comment, but did not reply by phone or email in a timely manner for this article.