Colorado hires private investigators to find teens who went missing when the state abruptly closed a youth center
July 16, 2021 | By Jennifer Brown | Originally published in The Colorado Sun.
When state child welfare officials arrived at a now-closed youth center to collect teenagers and send them to other placements, surprised kids scattered into the fields surrounding the residential facility in Watkins.
A month later, two teenage boys are still missing. And in the aftermath of what critics are calling a botched operation to abruptly close a youth center and transfer teens without warning, the state is paying a private investigator $100 per hour to find them.
The Colorado Department of Human Services, which includes the divisions of child welfare and youth corrections, moved to shut down Ridge View Youth Services Center on June 17, arriving on campus with little warning to transfer teens to other placements. The state notified the center that it was ending its contract with Ridge View after multiple reports of abuse and neglect, including marijuana smuggled into the center and an inappropriate relationship between a teenage boy and a female staff member.
When vans arrived to pick up youth living at Ridge View, several boys tried to run away upon hearing that they would return to locked facilities within the youth corrections system. Some of the teens had been released from lockup to the step-down program at Ridge View, a boys-only residential treatment center that had a school, sports teams, and therapy for substance abuse and mental health.
Four boys ran away. One of the two still missing is the son of Kevin Lash, who volunteered at Ridge View, attended church there with his son, and served on its school board. Lash, who adopted his 17-year-old son when he was 1, spent hours searching for him in the dark, put up posters of his face at a skate park and other hangouts, and asked the Denver Police Department to show his photo to all the officers who work on 16th Street Mall.
Lash said the private investigator was assigned to the case after he was “yelling and screaming” at state officials via email and phone calls.
“I wonder if I didn’t shame them into it,” Lash said. “I told them this was their fault, pretty directly.”
But state human services officials said it’s not uncommon to pay for “apprehension services” to find young people who have escaped from custody. Each case is evaluated separately, taking into account whether the “youth is a danger to themselves or others,” whether they were held in a locked corrections center and whether they are an “aggravated offender,” the state said in an emailed response to questions from The Colorado Sun.
State officials estimated a private investigator is hired about 75% of the time to find young people who escaped from youth corrections. But, as The Sun and 9New reported in May, hundreds of young people run away each year from unlocked youth residential centers similar to Ridge View. Those kids do not receive private investigators.
In the last three years, 200 young people exited the child welfare system because they ran away and were not found.
The youth corrections system, called the Division of Youth Services, contracts with three companies that search for young people who have escaped or absconded from parole, state officials said.
But when children and teens run away from residential centers, which care for troubled kids who’ve been abused or have severe mental health issues, the state does not hire private investigators. Instead, child welfare caseworkers “work with the young person’s network and with local law enforcement to locate them and ensure their safety and well-being,” state officials said.
The special report from The Sun/9News found that two boys who ran away from residential centers were struck by vehicles in the dark and killed.
Whether a child runs away from a residential center or a locked corrections facility, officials are required to report the missing youth to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Ridge View had about 50 boys living on the campus east of Denver when state officials said they were ending their contract with the center, which housed young people who were released from a locked facility. Human services officials said they were putting 24 of the boys at Ridge View back into secure youth corrections centers, including Mount View Youth Services Center in Lakewood. Some teens were sent to other residential treatment centers, which are not locked.
Lash acknowledged that his son has run away from residential centers before — the boy has lived in 13 facilities in the last several years. He was never before assigned a private investigator.
At Ridge View, Lash’s son was thriving, he said. He played on the basketball team and was working toward graduating from high school next year. The teen had angry outbursts at other residential centers that resulted in criminal charges, which is why he had spent time in Mount View youth corrections center, Lash said.
“He would get totally out of control, for about an hour,” Lash said. “Police would come and start handing out charges. I look at him as a kid with mental health problems.”
Now, Lash is wondering whether his son, when he’s found, will pick up a new escape charge and have to return to lockup. The teen needs help, not jail, Lash said, and he blames the state’s actions for disrupting the successful path his son was on at Ridge View.
Lash has written emails about his son to Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera as well as Michelle Barnes, executive director of the Department of Human Services. In her response two days after his son’s disappearance, Barnes wrote: “We have put in place apprehension services in order to find your son with haste. Please know we are all concerned for his safety and mental health as he processes this change to his care. You will be the first to know as soon as he is located.”
The abrupt closure and the hiring of a private investigator have also raised concerns from Colorado’s child protection ombudsman, Stephanie Villafuerte. She questioned the state’s policies on finding runaways, calling them inconsistent and inequitable.
“When we hire a private investigator for a family and not for all families whose children are missing from state facilities, it brings up questions of equity and fairness — and concerns that we may be prioritizing one child’s safety over another’s,” she said. “That is not the policy statement we should be making as a system.”
Whether kids escape from a locked facility or an unlocked residential treatment center, they are in danger from exposure to alcohol and drugs and even sex trafficking, Villafuerte said. “The fact that they have hired a private investigator highlights the dangers these kids face and we must find them immediately,” she said.
Human services officials said they assigned private investigators to the other three boys who ran away that day. They declined to talk about their specific reasons for doing so, citing privacy concerns.
In general, said Division of Youth Services spokeswoman Heidi Bauer, youth who are found by a private investigator are picked up under a warrant and “they are going to be brought back into custody.”
Ridge View’s operator, Rite of Passage, has appealed the closure through state administrative channels and now plans to take the matter to Denver District Court. The hope is that the center will regain its state contract and be allowed to reopen, said Kent Moe, executive director of Rite of Passage.
Moe said that while the use of private investigators is not routine, the state has hired them more frequently in recent years as officials have tightened the interpretation of state law regarding physical restraint of youth. Unlocked residential centers, including Ridge View, are not allowed to physically block kids from running away.
In the last fiscal year that ended June 30, the Division of Youth Services spent $292,003 on hiring contractors to find youth who had escaped. That was down, likely due to decreased population in the corrections system during the pandemic, from about $350,000 for each of the prior two fiscal years.
The human services department, which is represented by the state Attorney General’s Office in the case involving Ridge View, said it has no plans to send youth to the center in the future and instead will look for a private vendor to house 30 to 40 youth.
The Ridge View campus is owned by the state, which has contracted with Rite of Passage for about 20 years to provide treatment to youth leaving corrections centers. Ridge View also housed youth in the foster care system that were placed by county child protection services.
State officials said they ended their contract with Rite of Passage because of “repeated licensing complaints.” Records obtained by The Sun through public information laws show that in 2019, state regulators identified 83 potential licensing violations, including that illicit drugs, such as LSD, spice, and Xanax were smuggled into the facility.
Many of the complaints involved runaways and lax supervision. One child was able to access medications kept on campus and staff reported losing 10 Oxycodone pills, according to the documents. In another case, a female staff member reportedly had an inappropriate relationship with a male youth living at Ridge View.