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‘Return to its roots’: New facilities and cultural shift change course of state juvenile justice agency

‘Return to its roots’: New facilities and cultural shift change course of state juvenile justice agency

The youths’ rooms at the facilities are small, about the size of an office cubicle, and separated by dividers.

Many of the spaces don’t have windows, and the ones that do are covered with spray paint. Each cubicle has a metal bed frame with a thin mattress and a desk nailed to the wall. In some dormitories, blind spots can make it difficult for staff to keep an eye on all of the children at once.

Before long, the units at the Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center in Tecumseh will be torn down and replaced with cottages that place an emphasis on privacy, comfort and natural lighting.

The campus for boys is one of three high-security facilities under the Office of Juvenile Affairs. The other facilities, the Oklahoma Juvenile Center for Girls and the Southwest Oklahoma Juvenile Center, will be consolidated to the Tecumseh campus.

The merger could be considered a physical manifestation of how the Office of Juvenile Affairs is changing.

In recent years, the agency has shifted away from a detention-centered model to one focused more on treatment and rehabilitation.

Steven Buck, executive director of the agency, said when the revamped campus comes together, OJA’s facilities will be a reflection of that mission.

“None of those scream ‘doing juvenile justice well,'” Buck said of the current buildings. “So we kind of had an afterthought population.

“I think that the fact that we were given this opportunity legislatively demonstrates that from the executive branch and from legislative leadership, that this is a function of government that we should take seriously and that we should take pride in.”

The consolidation

OJA’s facilities were never designed to house kids in a juvenile justice capacity.

The Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center, for example, was built as a school in the early 1900s.

Tony Caldwell, chair of OJA’s board of directors, said he was “disturbed” the first time he toured the agency’s facilities.

First, by the lack of parents who visited youth, and then by areas of the facilities where it could be difficult for staff to keep an eye on children — blind spots.

A bill signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin last year gave OJA the green light to consolidate its three facilities to one central location on its Tecumseh campus, where some buildings are nearly 100 years old.

One of the goals for the centralized facility is more comfort for youth. Children will have private rooms and buildings on the campus will have warmer colors and plenty of natural light.

Caldwell said he hopes the consolidation to one facility will encourage parents to be more involved in their children’s treatment by making visitation easier.

Though Oklahoma has faced a budget shortfall for several years, OJA’s governing board has tried to view the crunch as an opportunity to reshape the agency.

The consolidation will save money through cutting costs in transportation, staff and overhead, Caldwell said.

The new facility, which could cost up to $45 million, will have 150 beds. The project is expected to go out for bid in the next six months.

“With the new buildings we’re building, we can demonstrate you can have state-of-the-art facilities while saving money,” Caldwell said.

A ‘bureaucratic entrepreneur’

Buck, who has been head of OJA for about two years, has a resume that sets him apart from former directors.

Keith Wilson, the previous director of the agency, is a former juvenile judge, and former director Gene Christian was a district attorney.

“(They are) Very strict, very black and white,” Buck said. “Both good people. I enjoy both of them. They are very good, but their governing board at that time was asking that agency to have a different emphasis.

“And when I was afforded the opportunity to come on board, it was very clear that my governing board was asking this agency to return to its roots, if you will, of focusing on that rehabilitative emphasis.”

Before heading OJA, Buck was deputy commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Prior to that, he was executive director of the Oklahoma National Alliance for Mental Illness.

Caldwell refers to Buck as a “bureaucratic entrepreneur.” He said he’s noticed a meaningful cultural shift in the agency over the last couple of years.

“I think it’s far more collaborative,” he said.

The change in leadership brought a new perspective, Caldwell said.

“You can’t disrupt something from the inside,” he said. “The idea is when you come from outside, from something with different perspective, that’s when you can disrupt things.

“We very intentionally wanted to disrupt business as usual at OJA.”

Buck said the changes stem from a cultural shift made through many subtle, and a couple historic, changes.

“There are certainly youth we have in our care that we need to acknowledge the public safety concern that they do represent. … But that doesn’t mean I want to give up on these kids,” Buck said.

Buck considers the agency’s decision to stop the use of pepper spray as a significant milestone moment.

From 2012 to early 2017, OJA used pepper spray in 52 incidents on 62 youth. Its use was phased out last year.

“It was hard, and there are days when I’m sure it continues to be hard,” Buck said. “But it was the right thing to do to make sure that we are advancing the health of the young people that we care for.”

Stephen Grissom, an OJA board member and psychologist, told The Frontier in a previous interview that the agency trained staff to use alternative methods in conflicts.

“The question is, do we give this kid a better chance of making it because he’s been with us? … I’ve never believed that (pepper) spray gave you the chance of getting that kid in better shape,” he said.

Board members have said Buck’s background with mental health has helped better address the needs of youth in OJA custody.

“When you look across the board, about 55 percent of our kids have a existing behavioral health record at SoonerCare,” Buck said. “So we know a large number have been engaged or are actively engaged by mental health professionals.”

That number doesn’t account for all of OJA’s youth with mental health needs, Buck said.  And mental health and substance use issues aren’t the only reasons kids end up in OJA custody.

“There are many complex reasons,” Buck said.

Still, Buck said, when looking at the number of youth who have mental health needs and at those whose parents have substance use issues, it’s hard not to argue that one of the primary avenues in which kids come into the agency’s care is because of a lack of access to services.

The agency is also trying to bring a new focus on children’s reentry plans.

“We have historically had a tendency, and this is no reflection on the staff, we would become very complacent and not worried about the kids’ reentry plan,” Buck said.

Part of that effort involves enrolling youth in school, establishing them in mental health treatment or helping them find a job before they leave the facility, Buck said.

“What is juvenile justice to me? It is to capably provide rehabilitation and accountability to those who our community should be concerned about and to use the position I’m in to talk boldly to the public about what we can do to keep kids from penetrating into our system,” Buck said.

“And that’s what juvenile justice looks like to me is, I want to shrink our footprint to where we are only serving those that we have a significant public safety concern about. The less kids the better for the state.”

So how have people reacted to the change in agency leadership?

“I think the fact we are in this planning phase to build  a next-generation campus, it is certainly an endorsement from the Legislature standpoint about how they understand we have to juvenile justice better — both different and better,” Buck said.

“To that extent I think people have responded very, very well.”

And time will tell whether this approach to juvenile justice will be more effective than the last.

“I’ve been here for two years,” Buck said. “What is this population of kids going to look like when they’re 35?”

However, Buck is confident there will be a positive impact.

“I think long term there is going to be significant reflection that we have been very successful in what we’re doing. … What we’ve done, we’ve been doing very well. I think it will show.”

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Oklahoma Office 
of Juvenile Affairs 

3812 N. Santa Fe Suite 400
Oklahoma City, OK 73118
405-530-2800