All in: Division of Youth Services doubles down on culture change

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By Michelle Barnes, CDHS executive director

DENVER (Jan. 30, 2020) — In 2017, the Colorado Department of Human Services' Division of Youth Services (DYS) embarked on a cultural shift from a punitive juvenile correctional environment to a trauma-responsive, relationship-building environment for Colorado’s youth. The reform has been substantial thus far, but there is still much to be accomplished.

This reform movement, engaging nearly 1,200 employees, stakeholders and youth, required shifting from a correctional based culture to a therapeutic culture. This type of major reform requires considerable strategic planning and unwavering support and leadership, but most importantly, it takes buy-in from staff. There has been much success in this area, but the overall reform of culture takes time, and there is still work to be done in this transition.

These changes have also been criticized, particularly during some challenging times this past year when several incidents occurred at Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center (LMYSC). Critics believe those incidents are reflective of the reform, claiming it had gone too far from the correctional model to the therapeutic model and staff had lost control in this new environment.

In truth, it is just the opposite. DYS and other advocates, including the ACLU, believe the reform has not gone far enough. Relationship-based, therapeutic culture reforms have proven to increase facility safety for youth and staff. Nationwide studies have established that positive relationships between staff and youth are a crucial ingredient in making facilities safer. Safety, in turn, leads to meaningful and effective programming so that young people exit the justice system and do not return.

DYS has dedicated itself to a change management process that addresses staff concerns while bringing them along with the reforms. In part, that involves training staff on why the reforms will keep them safer and provide better results for youth while providing staff with the resources and tools they need to de-escalate youth rather than restrain them. In a stable facility with a relationship-based culture, the reduction of restraint and seclusion decreases violent incidents. DYS is committed to continuing the evaluation and limiting the use of restraints.

Smaller facilities make for a more productive relationship-building culture. With that being the goal, DYS will divide LMYSC into four smaller facilities on the same campus. By reducing the size of the facilities and the number of youth in each one, while maintaining consistent staff assigned to each facility, relationships are built, and the youth and staff are safer. This will substantially enhance the ability to rehabilitate youth and the hiring and retention of quality staff.  

Doubling down on culture change is the appropriate path to create and maintain safe facilities for Colorado’s youth while providing the opportunity for them to live their best lives.

Note: A version of this commentary was published in The Denver Post.