More than detention: Cape center hopes to continue work with juveniles after payroll is eliminated

Friday, May 20, 2011
Sarah Schermann teaches at the Juvenile Detention Center in Cape Girardeau on Thursday, April 21, 2011. (Kristin Eberts)

For Randy Rhodes, it started with a suicide.

The chief juvenile officer had been on the job less than a month when a teenager took his own life in one of the cells at the Cape Girardeau Juvenile Detention Center.

"He hung himself within an hour of being here," Rhodes said. "We were his first stop after being picked up. It changed my whole outlook."

In those days, 25 years ago, the detention center was simply that -- a place to incarcerate troubled teens who had been charged with a crime. They would stay in one of the cells until they went to court, were sent to the custody of the Division of Youth Services or released to their parents. There was little evaluation and no real means for treatment.

But Rhodes didn't want to see that ever happen again.

From that day to this one, Rhodes has committed himself to putting programs in place at the detention center at 325 Merriwether St. that will help those who reluctantly walk through its doors.

"I have never based anything we've done on the philosophy that detention cures anything or that locking a kid up corrects their behavior," Rhodes said. "I found out quick that it didn't."

Over the years, the number of programs has grown, from assessment and counseling to gardening for the needy and martial arts. The detention center offers classroom work and provides two qualified teachers during the school year and over the summer. Girls are given gender-specific programming. A stealing diversion class required for some arrested for theft results in just a 5 percent recidivism rate.

In many ways, it's been his life's work.

Then, in April, word came that Cape Girardeau County was among the six centers that will close by the end of this year as part of a proposal to trim the state's circuit courts budget by a total of $5 million. The state's circuit court budget committee was recommending the elimination of the entire payroll for centers in Cape Girardeau, Poplar Bluff, Sedalia, Warrensburg, Union and Bolivar. The 13 or so employees from the Cape Girardeau center would be out of work and the courts would save their salaries, which total $337,170 each year. Circuit Court Judge William Syler of Cape Girardeau is one of the dozen members of the committee, and he voted in favor of the move.

Now, Rhodes and others are left to figure out what's next for the center or at least the juvenile office's role in dealing with them. The center sees 500 children each year from Cape Girardeau, Perry and Bollinger counties that range in age from 12 to 16. They are brought to the center in handcuffs by police, facing charges that run the gamut. Sometimes, the charges are serious, such as murder, drug possession, sexual assault or armed robbery.

But many more face less severe charges, including truancy, stealing, fighting at school and peace disturbance. That does not include the 1,500 or so referrals they receive a year, which range from babies with cocaine in their system to a juvenile picked up in Perryville at 2 a.m.

Last year, 420 of those brought to the center spent at least one night in one of its 10 cells. The center has averaged more than 10 juveniles a week since March.

Rhodes is working to figure out how to transition from a detention center to an assessment center, but with a smaller staff and perhaps without the 41-year-old building that is in need of repair and is owned by the county. While the 13 who work at the detention center will lose their job no later than Jan. 1, he has more than a dozen who work in his juvenile office at the Cape Girardeau Common Pleas Courthouse.

Today he will meet with the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, Associate Circuit Judge Scott Lipke who oversees the juvenile courts, and the deputy director of the state courts system to find out possibilities.

"I'm going to tell them what we do now and then ask them 'What do we need to do?'" he said. "For 25 years, this has been my program. It's been the program we've had. What are we replacing it with?"

Danny Johnson, a licensed clinical social worker and professional counselor, said the detention center has come a long way over the last two decades. Following the suicide of the young man 25 years ago, Rhodes contacted Johnson and said he recognized that some sort of evaluation would need to be done from the second a juvenile walked through the detention center's doors.

Johnson and his staff at New Vision Counseling Center have been working with the teenagers ever since.

"We knew there was a need for some sort of counseling," Johnson said. "Most of them aren't bad kids. If you can get them into therapy or get them access to some sort of solution, then that makes a big difference."

New Vision Counseling, which contracts the work for the detention center, performed 133 assessments during the previous 12 months. Some needed daily counseling at the center, but many more were referred to New Vision for follow-up services.

Johnson has seen his share of horror stories. While talking to juveniles who were brought in, Johnson or other counselors learned of sexual or physical abuse, serious problems at home and school and one person who had made serious plans to shoot up an area school.

"Sometimes when a kid runs away because he can't play Nintendo, that's all it is," Johnson said. "But sometimes it's something more deep-seated."

When Johnson learned that the detention center was losing its funding, he said he worries about what will replace it. He said that if the juveniles are shipped to centers in Bloomfield and Charleston, they will fall through the cracks.

While the center lost its payroll funding, Rhodes said he still will receive the annual $166,000 Division of Youth Service grant he gets that funds his programs. That pays for juvenile drug court, the community service and restitution program, counseling services, the salary of someone who checks those on home detention and the electronic monitoring system.

Those programs make a big difference for many who participate, Rhodes said. The biggest perhaps is the restitution program that puts offenders on probation to work in gardens behind the detention center. Last year, the juveniles helped grow 1,100 pounds of tomatoes along with squash and cucumbers that were taken to senior citizens and needy organizations.

Rhodes said he develops a rapport with the teens, whether it's while he gardens with them or works with them on judo at the university's recreation center.

"There's relationship," he said. "But you're still a juvenile officer. You don't get invited to high school graduation, but I'm awful proud when they do."

With all the uncertainty going on, Rhodes said, he sees the lost payroll funding as a done deal and "water under the bridge." His focus now is making sure that the assessments continue somehow and that the programs he's helped create are continued.

"We're going to replace it with something," Rhodes said. "What that will look like exactly, I don't know."


Pertinent address:

Detention aide Danyelle Young talks April 21 about the services provided at the Juvenile Detention Center in Cape Girardeau. (Kristin Eberts)

325 Merriwether, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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