The Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center, a youth detention center in Durango, abruptly closed Thursday after the state suspended its license on suspicion of inappropriate treatment of youth detainees, including possible child abuse.
The Colorado Department of Human Services initiated a suspension against Rite of Passage, the contractor that runs the detention center, in response to two physical encounters involving staff members and youth detainees.
More specifically, DeNier is accused of consistently failing to maintain standards, making misleading or false statements or reports, failing to provide safe conditions for children, violating the Child Care Licensing Act, and “substantial evidence” that suggests employees at DeNier committed acts of child abuse, according to a five-page order of summary suspension issued by the Department of Human Services.
“Following efforts to work with the facility to remedy concerns, CDHS determined that ROP’s operation of the DeNier Center presented an unsafe environment for the youth it served,” the Department of Human Services said in a prepared statement.
Employees were seen Thursday afternoon leaving DeNier with personal belongings. Several appeared upset and declined to comment. Two police officers were on-scene while employees moved out.
Employees were notified Thursday the center was closing and were asked to pack up immediately. Lynea Hansen, a Rite of Passage spokeswoman, said the employees remain employed by Right of Passage, but the program was shut down and the company is working through the details.
Hansen said about 30 people are employed at the center.
Rite of Passage was apparently caught off guard by the sudden closure of DeNier.
“We have been working with the at-risk youth of Colorado in the Durango area for 18 years,” said Kent Moe, Rite of Passage regional executive director, in an email to The Durango Herald. “We are proud of the hundreds of students who have successfully completed our program over that time and gone on to lead productive lives. The decision by the State of Colorado to close the DeNier facility this morning, suspend our license and move the students was unexpected.”
According to the suspension summary issued to Rite of Passage, the state investigated two complaints against the facility in June 2018. In response, DeNier devised an action plan for its use of physical management, including training staff on de-escalation techniques. DeNier also said it began reviewing all instances of physical management in conjunction with incident reports.
On July 20, a resident of DeNier was physically restrained by an employee referred to as “Mr. Phillips.” In Phillips’ report, he said the youth slapped a radio off of his shirt and reached out with both hands to grab Phillips. He then initiated a neck hold on the youth while the two were on the floor, according to Phillips’ report.
The report said the individual was immediately seen by medical staff. Two DeNier staff members viewed video of the incident and submitted the incident report to the Department of Human Services, according to the suspension order.
On Aug. 16, the department reviewed the video of the incident. The video showed Phillips pushing the youth in the back, closely following the youth and cornering the inmate. The video showed the youth knocking the radio away, but the youth made no attempt to grab Phillips. Phillips then grabbed the youth by the shoulders and later the neck and pushed youth up against a wall. He then moved the inmate down to the floor and continued to hold the youth by the neck until other staffers arrived.
A program director with Rite of Passage said Phillips’ neck hold was “against policy and not a sanctioned physical intervention.”
The department also reviewed medical reports, which said the individual was not seen by medical staff until July 23 – four days after the incident.
On Aug. 16, Moe informed Human Services that Phillips had been fired. But the next day, Moe reported Phillips would be offered the opportunity to resign without adverse action. If Phillips elected to stay, he would be subject to an “indefinite, unpaid suspension” until the investigation was complete, according to the suspension notice.
As of Aug. 18, no action had been taken to discipline Phillips, the notice said. Human Services also noticed the employee had received no training after the incident.
The state reviewed a second incident that occurred Aug. 7, in which Rite of Passage said an employee, referred to as “Mr. Webb,” was punched in the face by a detainee. However, video showed Webb first grabbed the youth out of a chair after the youth threw trash on him, after which the punch occurred.
DeNier can house up to 28 individuals, but only 16 were residing at the center Thursday when the suspension was issued. Detainees were moved to “state-operated settings” across the Front Range, the statement said.
DeNier was built in 1999 and opened Jan. 1, 2000, at 720 Turner Drive in Bodo Industrial Park. The building is owned by the state of Colorado and is operated by Rite of Passage, a privately held, for-profit entity.
The center has 28 beds – 19 for long-term commitment and nine for short-term detention.
As part of its contract with Rite of Passage, Human Services schedules regular visits to DeNier. Additional monitoring takes place if Human Services receives a complaint or report.
After the department files a notice of charges, Rite of Passage has 30 days appeal the revocation of its license, which follows the suspension. If the suspension is appealed, the matter will be set for a hearing.
This is the second Rite of Passage facility Human Services has taken action against in the last six weeks. On July 16, Human Services suspended a license to operate at the Betty K. Marler Youth Services Center in Lakewood for “licensing violations which posed an immediate threat to the health, welfare or safety of the youth in the facility.”