The state of Colorado hasn’t figured out what to do with its more than 15,000-square-foot Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center and has asked for local guidance.
The Colorado Department of Human Services wants to engage the local community to discuss potential uses for the building, said Madlynn Ruble, a spokeswoman with Human Services. But state officials have not established a timeline for the effort.
Officials with several local agencies have shown interest in the building, including La Plata Youth Services, Durango School District 9-R, La Plata County Sheriff’s Office and 6th Judicial District probation officers.
Sheriff Sean Smith said he can’t use the building for adult incarceration because the cells don’t have running water, as required by state standards.
Durango City Council has suggested the secure building could be a place for people living homeless to get out of the cold. Advocates for people living homeless have also shown interest in the building.
The CDHS facility, built in 1999 and opened in 2001, housed at-risk children from La Plata, Archuleta, Montezuma, San Juan and Dolores counties for almost two decades. But the building has been shuttered since August 2018 and will not reopen for detention and confinement of young people, Ruble confirmed in December.
County records value the secure residential treatment center on 1.28 acres near the La Plata County Jail, 720 Turner Drive, at $3.4 million, although the actual value is likely higher, a state official said.
“There probably will be suggestions that we haven’t thought of,” Ruble said in an interview.
A look insideThe building has had few problems since it closed about 15 months ago. The most notable issues have involved the HVAC system and a roof leak, said Dave Lee, regional director for the Division of Youth Services at CDHS. Lee said he worked with the agency since Rite of Passage – a private, for-profit youth detention company contracted to manage DeNier – opened the facility almost 19 years ago.
State officials evicted Rite of Passage and revoked its license to operate Aug. 23, 2018, after allegations of child abuse, among other alleged violations of state law. The Division of Youth Services moved all confined and detained children to other facilities around the state within six hours, Lee said.
Maps still hang on the walls in the larger of two classrooms. A rock-climbing wall in the gym is covered with tarp. The state shut off the building’s water to avoid frozen pipes. The refrigerators and freezers in a kitchen have been unplugged, Lee said.
The building is filled with cameras, all viewable from a control center surrounded by one-way mirrors in the middle of the facility. Fences 20-feet high cast shadows in adjoining, secure courtyards.
Maintenance and service crews sweep the building once a month, the only people to walk the corridors of the facility since it closed.
A few chairs sit scattered in two secure day rooms – beds in 13 concrete cells on the perimeter of each lay overturned. The floors are clean, but music symbols in red dry-erase marker still adorn a white board in the sun-lit dining area.
It’s difficult to think of the DeNier Youth Services Center as anything other than a youth detention and confinement center, said Chief Probation Officer Tom Harms.
“This facility was built for a very specific purpose,” he said.
Looking forwardA decreasing number of young people in the juvenile justice system makes it difficult for legislators to justify spending taxpayer dollars to fund detention and confinement centers.
But with DeNier closed, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office has spent tens of thousands of dollars taking local at-risk children without family support to a state facility licensed for youth detention.
Young people in Southwest Colorado have been left without local in-patient mental health care or substance-abuse treatment, said Christy McGinn, who works with La Plata County youths through the CDHS division of youth services.
“DeNier did provide kids with services,” she said. “Now, high-risk kids are not getting the services they need.”
La Plata Youth Services may contract with a facilitator in 2020 “to involve stakeholders to come together for a tangible plan,” said Executive Director Katie Pepinksi.
“We’re keeping an eye to the evolving needs (of at-risk young people in the community),” she said. “We can see needs for services or support of some kind, but we don’t know if this is the appropriate facility (for us at this time).”
Planning about what to do with DeNier may involve a grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, Sheriff Smith said. Durango City Council suggested last week the building may work as a place for people experiencing homelessness to sleep.
There’s a lot of potential in the DeNier Youth Services Center building, said Richard Dilworth, the Durango Business Improvement District’s homeless outreach representative member of the Durango-La Plata County Planning and Action Team on Homelessness.
Murals could add warmth to the sterile space, he said. Non-supporting walls could be removed to make the building feel like it’s “built like it’s not a jail,” Dilworth said.
But the building is “state-funded for youth needs,” Smith said. Dilworth said he understands the facility was built to support young people – children may, and probably should, take precedent.
“With all these passionate groups interested in the space, no matter what happens, I’m stoked,” he said.