Boys Totem Town, a 106-year-old juvenile treatment center in St. Paul, is closing this summer following a steady drop in residential placements.
The correctional facility that long housed youths who commit crimes will suspend operations indefinitely Aug. 1 — shortly after the last six boys complete their programming, Ramsey County officials said Tuesday.
The move comes amid high vacancy rates at the 36-bed center and shifting attitudes toward juvenile detention.
National models now recommend that troubled young people should be integrated with family and community as they undergo therapy and other behavioral services, rather than confinement.
Over the last four years, Totem Town has suffered a 56% decline in correctional placements — from 71 boys in 2014 to 31 last year, said John Klavins, director of Ramsey County Community Corrections. Only four teens were admitted in 2019.
“Our BTT staff have done phenomenal work — around the clock — on behalf of our youth,” said Klavins, who wants to reassign all 42 employees. “We’re committed to working with [them] ... to identify meaningful opportunities where our youth, families, community and organization can continue to benefit from their expertise and skills at Ramsey County.”
The 24-hour nonsecured facility had a $5.5 million annual operating budget.
It’s unclear what will happen to the multi-building complex, set on 85 acres in St. Paul’s Battle Creek neighborhood. Recently, the site has doubled as an informal dog park and recreational skiing area for nearby residents.
The county’s Board of Commissioners will hold a workshop next Tuesday to discuss the closure and what might happen to the site. County spokesman John Siqveland says elected leaders plan to gather input on how to repurpose the property and whether to raze the buildings.
Board Chairman Jim McDonough applauded Tuesday’s announcement as a positive change for struggling teens and their families.
“To be able to say that we don’t need that facility anymore is really good news — something to celebrate for our community,” he said. Numbers are now so low that the county feels confident they can manage troubled youth with other types of programming, McDonough said.
For more than a century, courts have committed boys ages 14-19 to Totem Town and Hennepin County Home School in Minnetonka as punishment for felony offenses. But in recent years, both state-licensed facilities struggled with aging infrastructure and saw demand for their services decline as more juvenile offenders shifted to in-home treatment.
In 2016, Ramsey and Hennepin County leaders abandoned plans to build a joint facility for delinquent minors after pushback by activists who called for more community-based programming. Detractors, who often referred to the juvenile centers as “youth prisons,” presented the Ramsey County Board with 1,000 postcards signed by people opposing the joint facility.
Talks about Totem Town’s long-term viability have been underway for more than two years. Elected leaders called the pastoral setting out of date and began evaluating its juvenile treatment program in 2017.
During a community meeting that year, neighbors overwhelmingly expressed interest in preserving the site’s unique “natural character.”
Totem Town’s closure means St. Paul may end up with yet another massive open space for potential redevelopment.
“There’s a fantastic opportunity here,” said McDonough, who pledged not to throw a “for sale” sign on the property. “We’re going to have a thoughtful conversation about what makes sense for that community and what makes sense for the city at large.”
Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.