Katelin Ferrell, age 17, recalls sobbing uncontrollably while trying to block out the sound of five adults screaming orders just inches from her face.
Moments later, she says, staff at the Anoka County juvenile facility threw her to the floor, shackled her wrists and ankles, and left her isolated in her room. Not until the next day, Katelin says, was she finally taken to Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids, where she was treated for a broken orbital bone beneath her eye socket, burst blood vessels in both eyes and a concussion. “I have no idea what I did to deserve this,” said Katelin, her eyes still bloodshot and bruised a week after the incident.
Katelin, who has struggled with depression and behavioral problems since grade school, thought she and her mother would get help from county officials to find a “safe place,” a mental health facility where she could get professional therapy. Instead, like a growing number of Minnesota adolescents, she wound up in a county correctional facility, where staff often behave more like prison guards than therapists.
Troubled children who are not charged with a crime — whose only offenses might be running away from home or hitting a classmate — now account for one-fifth of the population in Minnesota’s county juvenile correctional facilities. Between 2009 and 2015, the amount of time that so-called “non-delinquent” children spent in state-licensed juvenile correctional facilities rose 28 percent, largely because county child protection workers and local judges have nowhere else to send them, say state officials.
Children’s advocates argue that such correctional facilities are often more punitive than therapeutic, and use disciplinary procedures no longer accepted in the mental health profession. At the Anoka County facility where Katelin was sent, young children can be handcuffed, shackled, restrained in chairs and isolated in their rooms for hours. Last year, restrictive procedures were used nearly 200 times at the Anoka County facility, records show.
“We’re locking away far too many kids, and that’s a huge cause for concern,” said Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, a longtime advocate for juvenile justice reform. “Sending kids to incarceration, when they haven’t even committed a crime, has proved to end up making them hardened criminals.”
The judge who recently presided over the state’s largest juvenile court appears to agree. In a major ruling last fall, Hennepin County District Judge Margaret Daly said removing children from their homes and placing them in a large juvenile detention center exposed them to additional risks — “piling trauma upon trauma,” she wrote — and does not help children who need mental health services.
Daly, now an adult criminal judge, banned Hennepin County’s juvenile detention center from accepting more such children.
Minnesota’s Deputy Corrections Commissioner Ron Solheid said the recent rise in non-delinquent stays masks enormous strides the state has made since the 1980s in reducing the overall population of children held in secure, juvenile detention centers.
At the same time, Solheid said police and child protection officials often have nowhere to send children with extreme behavioral problems who can no longer be cared for by their parents.
Were it not for the state’s network of juvenile correctional facilities, many of these children would end up “on the streets,” Solheid said. “These children are a symptom of a much greater problem and that is: Where else are they going to go?”
The Anoka County Corrections department declined to comment on Katelin’s account, citing privacy regulations, but issued a statement saying its staff employs force “sparingly” and only when necessary to protect the safety and well-being of other staff and residents. Last year, the facility recorded 22 incidents of restraint and 159 incidents of a practice known as “disciplinary room time,” in which a child is placed alone in an unlocked room. “Even when policy is followed, injuries can occur in restraint and force situations,” the county said.
The Anoka County Sheriff’s Office has opened its own investigation into the incident, which it expects to complete later this month.
In interviews, Katelin’s mother, Meagan Ferrell of South Haven, Minn., said she was led to believe by county workers that the Anoka County facility would provide individualized mental health therapy for her daughter, who has cycled in and out of multiple treatment centers since junior high school. In June, Katelin ran away from a facility in Eau Claire, Wis. that treats children with mental and substance abuse disorders.
After that incident, several treatment centers declined to take Katelin as a patient, and a county social worker suggested the Anoka correctional facility as an alternative. On its website, the 28-bed facility, known as the Anoka County Non-Secure Program, said it provides psychological testing and family counseling, as well as individual and group therapy, among other social services.
No one mentioned that the facility is next to the state prison at Lino Lakes and is operated by the Anoka County Corrections department, Ferrell said.
“It seemed to be exactly what Katelin needed — a safe place where she could stay sober and get mental health services,” said her mother, a nurse at a St. Cloud hospital.
Yet unbeknown to the Ferrells, the facility was not certified under state licensing rules to provide residential mental health and chemical dependency treatment — the very services that Katelin needed. These certifications would have required staff to meet a higher professional standard, including treatment plans tailored to each child’s clinical needs. The facility has contracts with licensed treatment providers, but staff do not provide therapy on-site, a county spokeswoman said.
“This is a facility that fails to meet the minimum standards for the level of care they purport to provide,” said Roberta Opheim, the state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities, whose office is investigating the case. “No child in Katelin’s condition should have been sent there.”
Katelin said she received almost no mental health therapy during her monthlong stay at the Anoka facility, but was instead subjected to myriad rules and disciplinary measures. On just her second day, Katelin said she was placed on the floor in a five-point restraint, with her wrists and ankles cuffed behind her back, for raising her hands in a threatening manner, she said.
“From the very beginning, they treated me like a criminal,” Katelin said.
Katelin is not the only person alleging maltreatment at the Anoka County facility.
Katie Diehl of Hollandale, Minn. said her 12-year-old son recently underwent a 30-day stay at the same facility. The boy, who has a cognitive disability and multiple behavioral disorders, was placed under Freeborn County’s care this spring after he become increasingly violent and unruly. At one point, he gave a school bus driver a black eye, and was suspended from school for kicking another student, court documents show. “My son needs mental health treatment, but he’s not a juvenile delinquent,” Diehl said.
However, once he arrived at the Anoka County facility in Lino Lakes, the boy was treated “just like a prisoner,” his mother said. The staff took his clothes away and issued him a red shirt and red pants. Twice, he was sent to his room as punishment for seemingly minor offenses such as pushing a peer’s foot out of the way or scratching himself inappropriately in front of others.
In his official discharge papers, staff at the facility wrote that the boy “has been observed isolating in his room and wailing for extended periods of time.”
Katie Diehl said her son wanted to call home and talk to her, but like other children, he was allowed only three phone calls a week.
The seventh-grader was finally sent home last week, though Katie keeps several handwritten letters that he wrote while in custody. In one, the boy describes threats by staff and pleads, “I need out of this place please please … Get me out of this place.”
“They screamed at me in my ears and got really close to my face,” the boy said in an interview last week. “I was scared and just wanted to go home.”
Diehl asked that her son not be identified because the family is still searching for a residential treatment center, and she fears that he may be turned down if he is seen as noncompliant.