Security woes lead judges to stop sending teens to St. Paul juvenile center

Boys Totem Town entrance
Boys Totem Town, located in St. Paul's Battle Creek neighborhood, dates back more than a century.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Ramsey County judges say they've lost confidence in a century-old St. Paul juvenile corrections program following several high-profile incidents, including two cases where teens caused havoc after leaving the center.

The 28 judges told the county they will no longer send boys from juvenile court to the Boys Totem Town program, and they're calling on authorities to scrutinize the program immediately. They recently signed a letter saying they'd lost confidence in the county's operation and wanted action to better protect the boys there and the community around it.

"Our juvenile court judges and all judges are responsible for making dispositions that are consistent with the best interest of the child and public safety. So if something happens that implicates that, then the judges take notice," said John Guthmann, the county's assistant chief judge.

Boys Totem Town is tucked into the Battle Creek neighborhood in the southeast part of St. Paul. It can house up to 36 boys from 14 to 19 years old. Kids stay there from two months to a year. It's half-empty now, with only 17 clients.

Among their concerns, the judges cite three incidents. In 2014, a youth slipped away from Totem Town, stole a car nearby and fatally crashed it into the Captain Ken's Foods building in St. Paul after a pursuit by police.

Another youth was charged with assault in January after leaving Totem Town, stealing a neighbor's car, then trying to run over the neighbor.

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Last month, a mental health therapist who worked at Totem Town on a county contract was charged with helping a 17-year-old boy escape and later having sex with him at her home in St. Paul, where he stayed for a week.

"We have an expectation that there's going to be an investigation into why this conduct occurred, how that conduct can be avoided in the future, and how this child can grow up to be a productive member of society," Guthmann said.

Ramsey County officials say they are working on the problems there, although so far, that does not include locking the place up.

A totem pole
A totem pole stands outside the main building at Boys Totem Town in St. Paul's Battle Creek neighborhood.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Totem Town is not a secure facility, like those run by the state in Red Wing, Minn., but it doesn't take usually take violent kids, either. It works in a middle ground.

It hosts more than truants or curfew violators, but not the most dangerous kids. It doesn't take the relatively few girls juvenile court places out of their homes. These days there are about 120 kids put in out-of-home programs by the court in Ramsey County. Totem Town, if it were at capacity, would host the largest proportion of those kids.

"We have now begun the process of doing an independent clinical assessment of each and every kid in the program to make sure that everything was put together properly as far as treatment protocols, and if there were any issues that came up related to that particular contracted therapist, that we would address those immediately," said John Klavins, director of Ramsey County corrections. He said he could not discuss individual cases or identify kids at Totem Town, but said that the county has already been in touch with parents and is working to address the most recent issues.

Ramsey County has pledged $200,000 for a new security camera system scheduled to come online in April and has promised to better communicate with judges, some of whom found out about the criminal charges against the therapist via the news media.

The judges, though, are still seeking answers to basic questions. Those include how much good the program is doing and what kind of supervision missed the relationship between the therapist and the boy. The bench has also asked for answers about the use of ankle bracelet monitoring at Totem Town.

The county hopes to have its investigation into the most recent Totem Town incident wrapped up in the next several weeks. County officials are also in talks to merge some of the county's juvenile corrections with Hennepin County, possibly closing or relocating Totem Town. There are even questions remain among judges about Ramsey County's commitment to keep offering juvenile treatment.

The county, though, is not looking to get out of the business and send their kids to other programs here or out of state, Klavins said.

"The county, at least on the corrections side and from the county board, we are certainly committed to providing services within our county for our juveniles," he said.

Correction (March 21, 2016): An earlier version of this story inaccurately reflected the nature of the Ramsey County judges' complaint against Boys Totem Town. In a letter, the judges said they have lost confidence in the facility, and said they will stop sending boys there.