Long before Ramsey County District Court judges voted unanimously in February to stop sending young men to the county’s treatment facility for troubled boys, the center was under investigation for allegations of questionable record-keeping, retaliation and internal conflict.
Documents obtained by the Star Tribune show that concerns about Boys Totem Town (BTT) predate criminal charges filed in February against a contract therapist accused of aiding the escape of two juveniles, one of whom she is allegedly sexually linked to.
“BTT has become a place where kids do not get the treatment they need and where employees hate going to work,” said an employee’s first-person account included in an investigation published last July. “There is no team feeling among the staff and many staff resent each other. A high proportion of the staff are stressed out and anxious a lot of the time.”
The county commissioned the study in response to an employee’s concerns about strife inside BTT. Other reports and studies conducted by various consultants in recent years show a picture of an aging facility in need of replacement, a program that butts heads with key law enforcement players and a staff that struggled with low morale.
“BTT appears to be valued and respected by some, but not all, in the criminal justice community,” said an October 2015 report, which found that the program was “effective” and scored above the national average compared to others. “The Court, staff in the County Attorney’s Office and many probation officers do not agree with the treatment philosophy and have been outspoken about their lack of support.”
The conflict between law enforcement officials, county corrections staff and BTT staff is a natural by-product of the difficult work they undertake, county officials said.
“We’re engaged with trying to rehabilitate youth,” said Michelle Finstad, deputy director of juvenile services for Ramsey County Community Corrections. “That is always going to be a point of tension with all of us. … We all have a role to play in working with youth, and sometimes that different perspective is based on the role you play and your perspectives on public safety.”
Reports from 2011 and 2012 showed that BTT staff worried about their safety, felt unsupported by management and that “there are not enough boundaries on the youth, they run the show and we have lost our ability to have an influence over them.”
In recent years, a BTT runaway crashed a stolen car while fleeing police and died. Another runaway stole a neighbor’s car and tried to run over the neighbor. Ramsey County District Chief Judge Teresa Warner cited those cases and the therapist incident in a letter to Ramsey County Community Corrections Director John Klavins expressing worry about BTT.
“The lack of communication from probation to the judges regarding that [therapist] incident is concerning, to say the least,” Warner wrote on Feb. 25. “… The judges of the Second Judicial District unanimously decided to no longer send young men from Ramsey County to Boys Totem Town until we are confident that measures are in place to protect the safety of these young men and the public.”
A step back
Since 2003, an average 29 percent of boys have run away each year from Boys Totem Town, which prides itself on being an “open, community-based” program devoid of fencing on its picturesque, 85-acre grounds. The facility is currently home to 17 boys ages 14-19, filling half its capacity.
County officials said most runaways are located days if not hours after leaving. But the mounting concerns came to a head in February when contract therapist Karen A. Meyer was charged in Ramsey County District Court with one count of aiding an offender for helping two juveniles escape on Feb. 11. One was quickly apprehended thanks to a GPS tracking bracelet all residents must wear for the first 30 days.
The other teen, Meyer’s alleged love interest, eluded police. Criminal charges allege that while at BTT, Meyer showed the 17-year-old preferential treatment and made out with him in front of another juvenile.
In March, additional charges — three counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct — were filed against Meyer when police apprehended the 17-year-old. He allegedly told police that Meyer picked him up after the escape and drove him to her home in St. Paul, where they had sex and told each other “I love you.”
By then, the county was already working to meet a host of Warner’s demands that had to be fulfilled before the judges would reverse their decision: A full and independent investigation into the Meyer incident, an understanding of the credentials of contractors and staff at BTT, an understanding of how therapy is monitored by other staff and a plan to communicate with “justice partners” about high-profile incidents, among other requests.
Klavins, who also had phone and e-mail conversations with the judge, wrote Warner on March 17, saying the county had taken a number of “critical” steps.
In an e-mail to the judge, he said the county would install a “state-of-the-art” video system by April, conduct a thorough operational review and provide ongoing reports about the Meyer investigation, among other measures.
“Certainly, this most recent incident has created a lot of stress for staff,” Klavins said in a recent interview. “We’re working toward the best solutions here.”
Warner’s letter was just the latest in ongoing disagreements about how BTT is run.
A 2013 report commissioned by the county to guide the facility’s future noted that, “There is no common agreement between BTT and Juvenile Probation on the core mission, supervision of youth, programs being delivered at BTT, and the disciplining of probation youth at BTT …”
Dennis Gerhardstein, a spokesman for the Ramsey County attorney’s office, said prosecutors have previously expressed concerns about BTT and have occasionally opposed sending boys there when more intensive treatment was needed, or former BTT clients who had reoffended.
“It is important to remember that no particular placement can meet the treatment needs of every youth,” Gerhardstein said.
Boys Totem Town can be a “great” program, Warner said in a recent interview, but the Meyer case is cause to “take a step back.”
County records show that Meyer was paid about $43,000 from April 2015 to January 2016 for “therapeutic services” at BTT and the juvenile detention center. According to Finstad and Klavins, Meyer was not licensed at the time; she was working toward her license but met BTT requirements to provide therapy, and had also passed multiple background checks.
“When you place a child out of their home, it’s a big deal and we want to make sure the child’s needs are being met, whether it’s at Boys Totem Town or elsewhere,” said Warner.