From The Desk of Pamela Bisceglia
Denver Public Schools, the Division of Youth Corrections and the Division of Human Services all own a piece of Ridge View Academy. Ridge View Academy is a youth correction facility located in Weld County. The correction facility is in a remote area and is surrounded by fields. The facility does not have a barbed wire fence, rather the youth understand if they run they will be sent to a more secure correction facility. Ridge View houses the Denver Public Schools charter school Rite of Passage. The charter school was approved by Denver Public Schools Board of Education over a decade ago. The partnership between Denver Public Schools and the Division of Youth Corrections provides new meaning to the school-to-prison pipeline.
There are two ways that a youth can be placed at Ridge View Academy. The most obvious is the youth has been charged and convicted of a crime and that youth is sentenced to the correction facility. There is a second group of youth housed in the same facility: foster children. The Division of Human Services Child Protection Services is charged with keeping children safe. When Human Services removes a child from home because of abuse or neglect, if they do not have a foster home for the child age 12 and older, they are assigned to Ridge View Academy. The correction facility has “empty beds” and facility staff assert that they try to keep foster children separate from incarcerated youth but all youth are educated in the same classroom.
This advocate sat in a meeting where the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) for a child discussed the dilemma of whether it was safe for the child to remain in the home. The GAL wasn’t certain that any residential therapeutic treatment facility would have an opening and/or accept the child. The third option presented was to remove the child from the home, knowing that Ridge View Academy is the only facility that has an ample number of beds and will not refuse youth assigned by the justice system or Child Protection Services. In this case, the child (significant mental health and trauma) was removed from the home, sent to a residential (mental health) facility program; upon release from the program the child, now a teen, was sent to Ridge View Academy. After this youth spent some time at Ridge View Academy, Human Services admitted they had nowhere else to send this teen. Therefore, they returned the teen to the same home from which he was removed.
AdvocacyDenver offered Denver Public Schools and Denver Human Services the opportunity to respond to our questions about policies with youth and foster care children at Ridgeview Academy. Interviews were conducted with Joe Homlar, Denver Human Services Deputy Executive Director for Prevention and Protection and Kent Moe, the Executive Director of Denver Public School’s Charter School Rite of Passage. All of the interviews were conducted by AdvocacyDenver’s Catherine Strode.
Joe Homlar, Deputy Executive Director, Protection and Prevention Services/Denver Human Services
Are Division of Youth Correction and Denver Human Services foster care children housed together?
“When we receive concerns about a child who may be in danger, unsafe in their living environment, that’s something we look into and make plans with families to address and remedy. That is the majority of the work we do. There are situations, however, where we make determinations with courts. The same judges who work with kids in our juvenile delinquency system are the same judges who work with our families who experience abuse issues at home. All of those judges are working with our Department, with families, with guardians, to make sure the child’s best interest is served. Through the juvenile justice system, a child is adjudicated in a civil finding because of a delinquency issue they are struggling with. Through the traditional child welfare system, the same civil finding of an adjudication and a finding that the child requires an out of home placement. The children at Rites of Passage have a significant clinical issue. There are symptoms that are related to behavioral issues, to violence, to aggression and acting out. Our goal is to provide the clinical treatment they require and then get them back to a lower level of care. That’s what we want to see. That’s what families and courts want to see. Sometimes there may be a step down in the continuum of care to a foster care setting. Kent runs a facility that provides a specific clinical service to children that require that need based on our assessment, assessments from courts, as well as assessments to make sure a child is a good fit for Rites of Passage.“
What safety measures are in place to protect vulnerable children?
“Caseworkers visit at least monthly with children that are placed at Rites of Passage. They meet with kids privately to talk about how things are going and to talk about the plan to move forward. The caseworkers are required to report back regularly with courts, with other stakeholders, with parents, to make sure folks are up to speed with how the treatment is progressing, how they’re doing in the facility. They check to make sure every day, every week, every month, they are receiving the benefits of Rites of Passage. “
What is the Division of Human Services doing to grow the number of foster care homes in the community?
“We have independent recruitment efforts going on in Denver Human Services. There are twice monthly information sessions for anyone that wants to learn more about providing care, whether that’s the group home level, or foster care level. We can provide them certification for being a foster parent or we can link them with resources in the community as certified child placement agencies. Our Department is having a focused effort around our foster care recruitment efforts. There will be more directed media pushes. The state is also having a number of targeted efforts as well. We are always looking to talk with families in Denver, and even outside of Denver, about their interest in providing care for children. The number is 720-944-4000 to find out more about foster care.
Kent Moe, Executive Director of Rite of Passage
How many of the youth at Ridge View Academy are identified as having a disability under IDEA?
“Ridgeview is a Denver Public Schools charter. We are ranked very high as an alternative education campus. For what we have identified as special education, our count is between 75 and 80 students total. About 35 per cent of the kids have special education needs. They have an IEP (Individualized Education Program).”
Are Division of Youth Correction and Denver Human Services foster care children educated in the same classroom?
“We know placing kids without delinquent behaviors with delinquent behaviors causes the kids without to get worse. That’s what we try to avoid at all costs. We don’t want to make kids worse. Our job is to help them. When they’re referred to us, we assess their needs. Typically, there are behavioral needs. Virtually all of those kids have been adjudicated for a delinquent act. That’s the reason we get kids referred to us. Therefore, they need to be placed out of the home to deal with whatever that is.”
How are the students assigned to classrooms?
“We have a registrar that evaluates their transcripts. We have a placement test. We use measures of academic progress, map testing, to identify where a student falls in terms of their developmental level. We have remedial English classes and advanced ones. We look at their transcripts from the sending school and make sure they are placed into a class that fits for them.”
What is the range of ages of foster care youth, assigned to beds at Ridge View Academy?
“The range of ages is 14 to 18. The population also fluctuates. At any given time, the maximum would be 18 to 20 kids.”
What is the typical academic schedule for a student?
“We provide about seven and a half hours of academic rigor each day: math, English, history, reading, science, and health. Then, they have electives. Kids that present needs have remediation alternatives for them. We provide career and technical education every day to each kid. We have extracurricular activities through CHSSAA (Colorado High School Activities Association) so kids can play sports or do community service, normal things every high schooler has to do.”
What mental health services are provided to the foster care youth to mitigate trauma?
“We are a Trauma-Informed care facility. There’s an assessment done at the very beginning to measure the degree to which a child is traumatized. There is a daily and weekly regiment of coping skills, therapy, group interventions, and individual (interventions) as well. Each week, each student gets prescriptive treatment related to their diagnosis or to their needs. Those things look primarily like cognitive behavioral interventions that tie to whatever risk they present. You’re talking about trying to get the student to understand the thought/ behavioral link. That’s what evidence has shown to be the best intervention. We do group and individual therapy, prescriptive to the child’s presented needs.”
How long is a foster care child’s average stay?
“Kids placed with Ridgeview by the Department of Human Services are with us for five months or less.”
What safety measures are in place to protect vulnerable children?
“24-hour surveillance. A trauma informed environment. A variety of mechanisms for kids to have a voice, to tell an adult, if they encounter something that isn’t right there. We have a very rich staff to student ratio, both in the day and in the night. It’s eight to one during the day, at a minimum; and it is 16 to one at night, at a minimum. There are 24-hour ‘awake’ people at their disposal.”