Fourteen-year-old Kiondre Davison had a habit of acting up in school and running away from home. Social services officials stepped in to help. They sent him to El Pueblo Boys and Girls Ranch, a teen treatment center that touts its “environment of safety and loving care.”
Kiondre – with an IQ of 62 and an array of developmental disabilities – bickered with staffers, fought with other kids and exhibited what the Pueblo-based center documented as a pattern of inappropriate behavior. Its form of treatment: forcing him to spend at least 25 consecutive days last year in one of its “reflections cottages” — spaces that, despite the pleasant name, Kiondre describes as “hell.”
“Reflection,” as practiced in many cases at El Pueblo, is a form of solitary confinement in a cement cell. For some teens at the center, state investigators have found, reflection means no school, outdoor exercise or interaction with other kids. Kiondre didn’t really understand why he was put into isolation or how long it would last. He says the three and a half weeks or more he spent locked in solitude, unable to watch TV, read a book or see his mom “seemed like five or six months.”
“I’m not so good with stuff like months and weeks. All I know is it was long, real long, and it felt like the worst thing ever. I mean, ever,” he says.
El Pueblo voluntarily has shut down its reflections cottages as Colorado’s Department of Human Services investigates how many kids besides Kiondre have been forced into isolation there. Following a complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado last month, state regulators issued a report on describing as well-founded ACLU allegations that:
• Kids are locked and placed in solitary confinement in El Pueblo’s “reflections cottages”
• Children have not been provided adequate education programs during their stays in “reflection”
• And youth in El Pueblo “are not provided recreation, exercise or outdoor activity.”
El Pueblo President and CEO Sherri Baca touts reflection as a way to “provide a clinical intervention for the residents in crisis.”
“The Cottages are an important element in the continuum of care available to our kids,” she said in a prepared statement, noting that her center looks forward to working with Human Services officials in their evaluation of its program.
The use of solitary confinement has come under scrutiny in several facilities in Colorado.
ADX, the federal supermax prison in Florence, is being sued for housing mentally ill prisoners in long-term isolation without psychological treatment. Colorado State Penitentiary and the Sterling Correctional Facility – two state prisons that use long-term solitary confinement – are making headlines after the shooting of Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements in March by a parolee who served long stints isolated in both prisons before being released directly onto the streets.
While corrections officials and civil libertarians debate the legality of long-term solitary confinement for adult convicts, there is far less ambiguity about the use of isolation in a facility such as El Pueblo, which is a treatment center – not a penitentiary – for kids. Many El Pueblo patients are sent there voluntarily by their families or placed there by social services officials for psychological care.
State regulations prohibit isolating children “except in emergency situations and only after all less restrictive alternatives have been exhausted.” The rules also say that isolation should not exceed two hours except in the most extraordinary cases and should end when the emergency passes.
In its report, the Department of Human Services confirmed that El Pueblo has held children in solitary confinement in non-emergency situations for much longer than two hours, in some cases for days or weeks at a time.
Documents show Kiondre was held in El Pueblo Cottage 4 for at least 25 days from February to March, 2012, without school lessons or recreation time. His stint there may have lasted longer. El Pueblo paperwork obtained by The Independent is incomplete.
Seclusion is not one of the many accepted methods mental health professionals use to treat troubled teenagers. Humans need social contact. Long-term isolation is known to traumatize children, whose brains are still developing. Established ethics guiding isolation policies apply even to animals. New federal guidelines require more relative space and social stimulation for laboratory animals than teens were being afforded in El Pueblo’s “reflections cottages.”
Of particular concern is imposing isolation on developmentally delayed kids. Kiondre is typical of such cases. He struggled to understand what was happening to him and so only loosely tied his actions at El Pueblo to the consequences they brought.
“They didn’t like me, I guess. It must have been they didn’t like me,” he says.
Documents show the staff perceived Kiondre’s behaviors as defiant and threatening. As he tells it, they would wrangle with him, often putting him in physical holds in their scuffles. He says they kneed him in the eye, back and groin. The center’s own notes acknowledge times when staff escalated his behavior.
“They’d tell me ‘You ain’t nothing. You ain’t ever going to amount to nothing but dirt.’ They’d tell me that pretty much every day,” he says.
Kiondre spent much of his time rocking back and forth, pacing the floor and wishing he could see his mom. When the solitude overwhelmed him, he says, he would punch the wall, bang his head against it and try choking himself with a towel.
Kiondre says he had no blanket during much of his time in reflection and that the drinking fountain was too dirty to use.
The state report concluded that El Pueblo staff prevented children from leaving the reflections cottage rooms by threatening punishment and removal of privileges, as well as by physically holding and blocking the doors.
“Look, I know my kid’s no angel. But he sure didn’t deserve to be locked up in a cell by people who are supposed to be helping him,” says his mom, Leah Bolden of Colorado Springs who, like other parents with kids in reflections cottages, demanded to visit her son but was turned away.
“He went in there the kid I knew, but when he came out, he was somebody else all together,” says Bolden’s older son, Joe Moore, 28. “Being alone like that so long changed my brother. It’s like it broke something inside him. I think it drove him crazy. I think it made his behavior way worse.”
Kiondre, now 16, is serving time at Spring Creek Youth Services Center, a state juvenile detention facility, for an assault that occurred at El Pueblo.
Scrutiny of El Pueblo is expanding beyond state regulators and the ACLU lawyers who brought isolation there to light. The Legal Center, a watchdog agency with a federal mandate and federal funding, is considering legal action to obtain educational services for young people held in facilities like El Pueblo, “including compensatory services, for students with disabilities who were denied appropriate services,” says Director Randy Chapman.
With special rights to investigate institutional abuse, Chapman’s office has access to documentation that could more deeply reveal El Pueblo’s history of treatment.
The state has ordered El Pueblo to suspend operation of its reflections cottages until it comes into compliance with laws and until regulators approve a formal “clinical and educational foundation” plan for the rooms.[ Photos of Kiondre Davison by The Colorado Independent. ]