Detention center aims to give youths structure

It’s been a steep learning curve for Sheriff Mike Waguespack and his staff since they opened the new Assumption Parish Youth Detention Center six months ago.

The sheriff first offered the idea of the center late last year when a youth detention center in St. James Parish made plans to close — the center closed last summer rather than try to spend the money it would take to meet new state regulations that went into effect in July 2013.

The timing seemed right, Waguespack said, since a new adult detention center was set to open in Assumption Parish, and the old center could be used to house juvenile offenders.

“I would say it’s more of a challenge than I anticipated, to be honest,” Waguespack said Friday, but added that he’s never been discouraged by a challenge.

“We’re also taking care of a tremendous need in this region,” he said.

Waguespack is looking for input and guidance from the Louisiana Juvenile Detention Association, which was active in drawing up the new state regulations for juvenile detention centers.

Members of the association visited Assumption’s youth center in Napoleonville recently and found areas for improvement that must be fixed or they could endanger the center’s license, Glenn Holt, president of the association, said Friday.

The association, which will be working with the center to help make those improvements, suggested better staff training, improved education services for the youths and more programs for them such as a social skills group, said Holt, who also is superintendent of the Youth Study Center, the juvenile detention center in New Orleans.

Holt, however, said he feels confident that the Assumption Parish Youth Detention Center can take the steps it needs to maintain its license.

“You have two quality leaders who believe these kids deserve a good quality of life,” Holt said, referring to Waguespack and the center’s assistant director, Melissa Richard, who previously worked with the Assumption Parish Sheriff’s Office as a juvenile detective.

“I do think Assumption is moving in the right direction. They probably got into it a little too soon,” Holt said.

It’s highly unusual for a center to lose its license, Holt said. Typically a center has the opportunity to address deficiencies and make improvements, he said.

Youths, ages 10 to 17, come to a center like the one in Assumption — there are more than a dozen in the state — after they have been arrested.

Within 72 hours, they must have a hearing before a judge, the district attorney and their defense attorney, and a decision is made on whether the youths will stay at the center or be released to their parents until another court hearing.

The Assumption Parish Youth Detention Center takes in youths from 20 parishes and municipalities throughout the state.

Heavily populated Ascension Parish is the only parish that has a contract to reserve a set number of beds, 10, at the center at all times. Ascension’s five-year contract with the center has an annual cost of approximately $456,000.

The other parishes and municipalities that send juvenile offenders to Assumption have a contract to pay the center $130 per bed per day and are billed for other expenses, such as medicine or doctor visits for the offender.

The population at the Assumption Parish Youth Detention Center fluctuates.

On Friday, there were 17 youths at the facility, but in its six months of operation there have been as many as 50. The average count is about 30, Waguespack said.

The center has the capacity to house 92 juveniles, including housing for a maximum of eight girls.

Waguespack is acting director for the center.

A director who was hired when the center opened June 28, whom Waguespack didn’t name, resigned shortly after she started at the center, Waguespack said.

He didn’t speak about the reasons for her resignation, citing confidential personnel issues, but said he’ll be the acting director for the next several months.

“I wanted to run it hands on for six to nine months just to get a feel for what it’s going to require as far as personnel … to fulfill the vision and the mission,” Waguespack said.

The state Department of Children and Family Services, which licenses juvenile detention centers under the new state regulations, granted some waivers to the new Assumption Youth Detention Center, mainly regarding physical structures such as the height of ceilings.

“We were the last facility to apply (for the new license) and the first to be licensed,” Waguespack said.

The downside of trying to meet a tight deadline, Waguespack said, has been the lack of lead time to place the right people in the right positions.

“Turnover is regular in this field. Juvenile detention has more challenges than adult detention,” he said.

The center has had approximately 30 percent in staff turnover since it opened, Waguespack said.

“We’re going to do a better job of screening to make sure they’re committed to being in this kind of environment,” he said.

Many of the youths, who may be there only for a few days with two months as the longest stay for an offender, have mental health issues, Waguespack said, and the staff and the two local doctors they contract may only have a short time to try to help a child.

“Some of the kids are just beginning to develop” mental health problems, and “We are the first or second stop,” Waguespack said.

Adult offenders usually have an established medical record by the time they’re in the criminal justice system, Waguespack said.

There is also a high risk of suicide attempts among juveniles, he said.

There have been two attempts but corrections officers were able to intervene and get the youths to the hospital, he said.

Two of the staff have been hurt with one recovering from a knee injury he suffered when a teenager kicked him and the other staff member required surgery when an offender grabbed and injured his shoulder.

The center will be putting into place more protocols and training, including more verbal training.

“We’re very concerned about the safety of the kids and the safety of the staff,” Waguespack said.

The staff includes a full-time teacher who supervises the youths who work at their own grade level on an online educational system.

There are also two nurses, one in the morning and one in the evening, and a part-time social worker.

There are approximately 30 correctional workers, who work in shifts round the clock.

Parents, grandparents and other guardians of the juvenile offenders can visit twice a week.

Richard said only a few of the youths get family visits.

On Friday, as Waguespack and Richard walked through the center with visitors, two of the juveniles wished Richard “Happy New Year.”

In another room, Richard stopped to talk to a teen about getting a new sweatshirt, and she talked briefly with another youth who was unhappy with his roommate.

“They light up when they see me,” Richard acknowledged, as she stopped to chat with several of the teens.

The setting at the center is stark. In each “pod,” there are two metal tables, a shower, a bathroom and several small bedrooms, each with a bunk bed. Sharing a bedroom will only happen if the center reaches capacity.

The beds have thick, woolen blankets, too bulky to be made into nooses to harm themselves with, Waguespack noted.

Outside of the living areas, there’s a day room, where the juveniles take their meals and watch TV, a classroom and an outdoor area with a basketball court.

When Waguespack first began planning for the new center, he anticipated breaking even at first with revenues of $1.4 million matching expenses of roughly the same amount.

He said he’s presently in the process of reviewing the finances of the first six months of operation to get more information on how the finances stand.

There will be more expenses.

“We haven’t ramped up the staff where we need to have it,” Waguespack said. “It all depends on the census.”

Waguespack said the center is a “work in progress. We’re not going to know where we’re at for a year.”

He said he wants to run it at a profit.

“We’re paying our bills timely, we’re in the black,” he said. “Are we making a huge profit? No.”

Waguespack said that as the years have passed, he’s seen young people become more troubled.

“They’re forced to grow up so fast,” something that’s facilitated by the Internet and social media, he said.

“I think they’re all actually looking for a structured environment” they may not get at home, he said.

“We’re trying to give them structure. It’s difficult to do here. A lot of them are short-timers” but it’s what the center hopes to provide, Waguespack said.