St. Louis Juvenile Detention Center works to make improvements, hire staff after escapes

Ten juveniles have escaped in the past three months; four remain at large


By Katie Kull
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
        
ST. LOUIS — Officials at the city's Juvenile Detention Facility said they've been working to hire more workers and make building upgrades after 10 kids escaped in three months.

Chief Juvenile Officer Amanda Sodomka said the officials were concerned about the rash of escapes from the facility on Enright Avenue on Sept. 4, Oct. 16 and Nov. 16, but had identified problems with the building and safety protocols that could help prevent other incidents.

"Our goal is to keep them housed here and then be lawfully released," she said. "We are concerned about (the escapes), and that's why we're working towards upgrades and improvements."

Chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley visits the St. Louis Juvenile Detention Center in 2017.
Chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley visits the St. Louis Juvenile Detention Center in 2017. (Flickr/Saint Louis Chess Club)

The escapes involved six 17-year-olds, two 16-year-olds, one 15-year-old and a 13-year-old. All were boys, and four remain at large. On Tuesday, one of the 17-year-olds died after being hit by a car on Interstate 70.

The detention center is run by the St. Louis Circuit Court and was housing 26 kids on Thursday. Maximum capacity is 109 beds, said Jacob Long, chief communications officer for the 22nd Judicial Circuit.

Youths stay at the center an average of 56 days while they wait for their cases to be resolved, Sodomka said.

While there, children attend classes at an alternative school run by St. Louis Public Schools, receive counseling or psychiatric care and participate in activities, said Superintendent Amanda Williams.

From inside, the building looks in some places more like a school than a jail. It has murals and artwork hanging on the walls, a gym with a basketball court and a large cafeteria with roughly 20 tables. A recreation room with an air hockey table and video games entices good behavior, Williams said.

The people who supervise the kids are called "Youth Leaders." They aren't corrections officers and aren't allowed to carry weapons, but they are trained on how to intervene and do crisis response, Sodomka said.

The kids at the Juvenile Detention Facility represent a small fraction of those who go through the judicial system, but they are those who "may pose a threat to the community or be at risk for failure to appear in court," according to the court's website.

Sodomka did not directly speculate about why more kids might be escaping, but she said the 56-year-old building had some security and IT problems that contributed to the issue.

To fix the problems, the court pledged to make $330,000 in facility and IT improvements, including upgrades to surveillance and building reinforcements, Sodomka said.

The center has also suffered from low staffing levels. Seven positions have been vacant since before the escapes started.

Those positions were created after Missouri barred 17-year-olds from being automatically charged as adults. Supporters of that law said teens have neurological differences that affect their decision-making process.

Sodomka declined to attribute the escapes to the detention facility population skewing older, noting that one of the escapees was 13.

"It's hard to say," she said. "You could have a 15-year-old who is as strong and sophisticated as another 17-year-old."

Still, current employees remain strapped and working overtime while supervisors interview applicants.

"People are trying to pitch in everywhere they can," Williams said. "They want their co-workers to be safe, they want the kids to be safe, they want the facility to be safe. I do feel like they're going above and beyond to meet that need."

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says keeping 17-year-olds in the juvenile system has been shown to reduce the chances that they will commit another crime by up to 34%.

The facility faces challenges to help juveniles who come from traumatic situations and may struggle with impulse control or lash out when there's a conflict, Williams said.

In one unit on Thursday, three boys sat around a table playing chess, while others watched a show on TV during a break from classes.

That unit is reserved for children with especially traumatic backgrounds. Most kids who come to the facility have experienced the deaths of friends or loved ones, and assaults or other violence in their lives. But the children in that unit may need special care.

Williams said while they are in a detention facility, they are still teenagers, and the day-to-day drama that comes with being a kid doesn't stop at the door.

"At the end of the day, we're always balancing teenagers and their interactions with each other," she said.
     
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