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Youth center staff often helpless to prevent kids from running away (Local Tips & Reviews)

Workers who care for kids in residential treatment centers say they feel powerless to prevent them from running away because of a Colorado law that limits their authority to restrain them. 

Staff reported in a new study that they’re regularly confused and paralyzed by what’s known as the Colorado “Restraint and Seclusion Act,” which says they cannot physically prevent a child from leaving a residential treatment center unless the child is in imminent danger. Even police officers who respond to a barrage of runaway calls often do not understand that treatment center staff cannot restrain or block kids from fleeing, staff reported.

In one case, a worker watched helplessly as a 13-year-old boy ran from a center in the middle of a blizzard wearing only sweats and flip-flops. Instead of trying to catch him, she kept an eye on the boy from her car until, gratefully, the child returned to the facility on his own. She feared that he would freeze to death while she also wondered if she would lose her job if she touched him.

The study is part of legislation passed last year that set up a task force overseen by the state child protection ombudsman to determine why so many children and teens are running from foster care placements and residential treatment centers. 

A 2021 joint Colorado Sun/9News investigation found that kids are running from the centers nearly every day and that two boys who ran away from different facilities were struck by cars and killed. The Sun investigation found that Denver police were called to Tennyson Center for Children about once per day and to Mount Saint Vincent center about twice per week. 

Timothy Montoya-Kloepfel died after he was hit by a car after running away from Tennyson Center for Children. He was 12 when he died in June 2020. (Provided by Elizabeth Montoya)

Each year, 20-30 kids run away from foster care placements in Colorado and are not found. Their child welfare cases are closed. 

The new study, by researchers from the University of Denver’s Evaluation and Action Lab, included interviews with 15 staff as well as 21 young people ages 12-17 who have run from placements. 

A key reason they run is that they are looking for “connectedness,” the researchers found, often by running to family members. Also, they are living in “fight, flight or freeze” mode, a constant state of stress. Children are typically “dysregulated at the time of a run” and are “unable to access parts of their brain that allow them to make rational decisions and understand consequences,” according to the study. 

They run when they are triggered by upsetting events. They run because they are not connected to staff members and they’re seeking connection. They feel ignored and unseen. Some run to find drugs or alcohol. Many run to a place of familiarity, the study found. 

Colorado Sun/9News partnered for a joint series examining residential treatment centers where Colorado houses foster youth and kids with severe behavioral issues.

Children are placed in residential treatment centers either because they are in foster care due to abuse and neglect, or because their behavioral and mental health issues are beyond their parents’ control.

In the past few years, updates in state law and regulation have attempted to strike a balance between children’s safety and the use of restraints and seclusion. One new law came in response to concern that the youth corrections division was relying too heavily on solitary confinement and straitjackets to control behavior. Other state regulations say that residential treatment center staff cannot use physical restraint on children in out-of-home placements unless there is imminent danger to themselves or others. 

Staff interviewed for the study said they want the state to define “imminent danger” so they have a clearer understanding of when they are allowed to prevent a child from running either by restraining them or physically blocking a doorway. They also want help from the Colorado Department of Human Services, which includes the child welfare division, in creating better collaboration between youth residential facilities and local law enforcement officers who respond when children try to run. 

Workers also reported that when they write required reports about children running from a center, they take the blame, feeling “the assumption was that they had not done everything in their power to keep youth from running.” Often, the only option is calling the police.

The law that prevents physical intervention leaves no room for what a parent would want, staff complained. 

“If I was the mother of one of those children, I would want a voice,” one staff member reported to the study authors. “I don’t think we listen to our families enough in that interpretation. I used to get numerous phone calls, ‘How do you let my kid run away? I put him there for him to be safe. How can you just say that you guys let them walk away?’”

Kids who have run away say that when they are returned to residential centers they feel like they are punished, the study found. “Like you can’t change your clothes. You can’t wear shoes. You have to wear your slides. You have to only wear scrubs,” one child said. “You can’t wear your personal clothes. You’ll be separated, so you won’t be with the unit.”

One child described it plainly — they run because they want to go home.

“I honestly just didn’t want to sit here and do another six months of treatment,” the child said. “It’s really hard because a lot of us, me, we, have so many people at home that we care about. For my specific situation, I have two little sisters, and I’m missing my little sister’s first days of kindergarten, and she’s getting bullied in school right now. And I have to hear about it over a phone. It really sucks. So, I guess I just wanted to leave. That’s pretty much why I ran.”

The task force is named for Timmy Montoya-Kloepfel, who was 12 when he ran from Tennyson Center for Children in Denver in June 2020 and died after he was hit by a Chevy Tahoe. His mother did not know for 26 hours where he had gone after running from the center. 

Timmy and Andrew Potter, 15, were killed in separate incidents with similar details — both were struck by cars late at night after running away from different centers, two years apart.

Their deaths and the escalating runaway problem at some residential child care facilities sparked calls for investigation and allegations from residential centers that they were suffering from years of inadequate state funding. Some called for review of state regulations that prohibit centers from locking their doors or using physical force to prevent children from running away. 

The task force, which includes former foster kids, foster parents, social workers, a police officer and county child welfare officials, must submit reports to the legislature by October 2024. 

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