CENTRALIA, Wash. – Three years from now, one of Washington's five juvenile lock-ups will be empty – shuttered to save money. That decision has sparked allegations that lawmakers are putting politics ahead of the needs of mentally ill kids. What we're talking about is the Maple Lane School near Centralia. Initially, its closure will actually cost taxpayers millions of dollars. But more than that, one expert fears it could have deadly consequences.
Birch House is a maximum security wing at Maple Lane School – one of Washington's oldest juvenile institutions. Fourteen offenders live in this unit. Each one has some kind of severe mental health issue. An electronic lock clicks and John Maio swings open a heavy metal door.
John Maio: “This is my room.”
It's an eight-by-twelve cell with a cinder block bed and thin mattress. Maio was convicted of second degree assault and sentenced to nearly a year at Maple Lane. It's his punishment for going after his father with a knife.
John Maio: “I'm not proud of it and I definitely wouldn't want to do it again. I definitely don't plan on doing it again.”
Maio has turned 18, but looks younger with glasses and a mop of curly hair. His time here is almost up. That means he doesn't have to worry about what happens in 2013 – that's when Maple Lane School will close. Some of the kids here will be moved to Green Hill School about twenty minutes away. Maio has heard of Green Hill's scary reputation.
John Maio: “More of the gangbangers and stuff like that go away so it's more like an actual prison where this is more of a treatment and mental health facility so.”
Green Hill is where Washington's more hardened and violent juvenile offenders go. While Maple Lane specializes in treating mentally ill, developmentally delayed and drug and alcohol addicted kids. It's a segregation that makes sense to Bob Nelson. He recently retired as superintendent of Maple Lane. He spent nearly four decades with Washington's Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration. Nelson fought to keep Maple Lane open. He thinks lives are at stake.
Bob Nelson: “The most concerning thing for me is we'll have as many as forty kids on a suicide watch at Maple Lane School. And that's our number one target to watch for and if you start mixing those kids you may not pick up a flag and the direct result might be that we could lose a kid.”
But the decision's been made. Maple Lane will be shut down in phases. This will give Green Hill School the time it needs to get ready.
Marybeth Queral: “This is the campus of Green Hill School. Inside the fence is 45 acres so we're looking across ball fields out to living units on that side, school and vocation school.”
Marybeth Queral is the Superintendent of Green Hill. We walk to a high spot on the campus where a tractor is plowing the earth to make a summer garden that the youth here will tend. This is where two new buildings will go up to house the kids from Maple Lane.
Marybeth Queral: “And one would be a new intensive management unit, 24 bed, and another would be a residential mental health unit, 16 bed mental health unit. Maximum security both of them.”
Initial cost to taxpayers: about $10M. Queral is pulling double-duty these days as superintendent of Maple Lane as well. She too worries about mixing the different populations. They'll have separate living units. But what about school during the day or meal time or activities on the ball fields?
Marybeth Queral: “Residential mental health, if it's maximum security, we may have self-contained where a lot of it is done within the unit, but you still need to have, if a kid can get out and go to school you want to have that happen or you want to have them out playing.”
Queral and her team are just beginning to figure out how this will all work.
The argument for closing Maple Lane starts with the fact Washington's juvenile offender population has shrunk. Maple Lane has more than 60 vacant beds. Closing it will save about $6M a year. Plus, there's a move afoot to get kids out of institutions and into community-based settings. Usually these are group homes. But why did majority Democrats in the legislature decide to shutter Maple Lane? As far back as 2006, the recommendation was to close another facility instead. The Naselle Youth Camp, a minimum-security facility on Washington's Southwest coast. As recently as last year, the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration again recommended to the Governor that Naselle close. But that idea didn't fly with the legislature.
Bob Nelson: “It just seemed to be very political to me.”
Retired Maple Lane Superintendent Bob Nelson.
Bob Nelson: “As a taxpayer I'm thinking why would I close this facility when it gives me many more options in dealing with more of a diverse population than what Naselle can do. So that's a little distressing.”
Another person who thinks it was a political decision is Republican State Representative Gary Alexander. Maple Lane is in his district. He doesn't like the idea of walking away from a place that taxpayers have spent $35M to upgrade over the past twenty years.
Gary Alexander: “Not counting the anticipated renovations and construction costs at Green Hill School, this doesn't pencil out anywhere I can see.”
Here's another reason for the suspicion that politics played a role. Last year, Democrats commissioned a new study to recommend which state institutions to close. But the study's authors were told to focus on Green Hill and Maple Lane. Naselle was not considered because it was too small. Furthermore, Maple Lane is in a Republican legislative district. Naselle is represented by Democrats. But Democrats hotly dispute the notion that politics won out over good public policy. A key architect behind the closure of Maple Lane was State Senator Jim Hargrove, chair of the Senate Human Services and Corrections committee. He did not respond to requests for an interview. But Hargrove has a reputation as a fierce advocate for the mentally ill. His colleague is Senator Brian Hatfield, whose district includes Naselle. He defends Hargrove's conclusion that Maple Lane is the institution to close.
Brian Hatfield: “If he didn't feel like it was the best move policy-wise and fiscal-wise long-term to keep Naselle open, he would close it in a heartbeat. It's not his district, he's not protecting his turf, he does not play politics with this sort of thing.”
In a last ditch effort to save Maple Lane, employees picketed outside the gates and asked Governor Chris Gregoire to veto the closure. She didn't, but vows the state will continue to protect mentally ill juvenile offenders.
Chris Gregoire: “I don't assume that every resident of Maple Lane will go to Green Hill. There are other options for them in the system. And so every individual will be looked at and try to discern what's the best placement for them.”
Asked why Naselle was spared, Gregoire said because it's a unique program and relatively small. Her priority was to close a large institution. The mothballing of Maple Lane will begin this year with a reduction of 58 beds. [I'm Austin Jenkins reporting.]
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