Proposed Taft Youth Development Center closure draws fire

Proposed Taft Youth Development Center closure draws fire

December 10th, 2011 by Ben Benton in News

A motorist passes the entrance to the Taft Youth Center in this file photo. The center is located north of Pikeville, Tenn.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

BY THE NUMBERS

Facility / Annual budget for 2011-12 / Average daily census / Student cost per day

• Mountain View: $11.3 million / 103 / $299.42

• Woodland Hills: $12.1 million / 104 / $319.16

• John S. Wilder : $11.3 million / 108 / $286.94

• Taft: $12.3 million / 90 / $375.29

*Includes costs associated with water treatment plant and farm utilities which are disputed

Source: State and local officials


TAFT NOTES

The 16- to 19-year-old boys at Taft have adult sentences, serious delinquent offenses, are serving a third commitment or have exhibited severe behavior problems at one of the other regional Youth Development Centers. The on-site school at Taft provides basic academic subjects, vocational training in 10 subject areas, special education services, plus GED preparation and testing. The program options at Taft include individual and group therapy, alcohol and drug treatment by certified substance abuse counselors, a specialized program for violent offenders and an extensive recreation and arts program. Taft's interscholastic football program, unique among the state's centers, competes with area high schools. The facility also operates a water treatment plant that serves the center and surrounding community as well as a farm.

Source: Tennessee Department of Children's Services

It's no YMCA and a far cry from a daycare.

Taft Youth Development Center in Bledsoe County houses about 100 of the state's hardest juvenile cases, something it's done for more than nine decades.

But with Gov. Bill Haslam's call for 5 percent reductions in departmental budgets, Department of Children's Services Commissioner Kathryn O'Day has proposed closing Taft and transferring those 16- to 19-year-old students to one of the other four youth centers scattered across the state.

The move has drawn bipartisan opposition from local lawmakers, who argue O'Day is cutting a vital piece from the state's juvenile program and taking a 170-job bite out of the surrounding Cumberland Plateau counties.

O'Day told Haslam during a November budget hearing that Taft is the system's most costly facility, with a $12 million annual operating budget and as much as $37 million in capital needs. By closing Taft, the department would save $4.4 million a year, according to O'Day.

Most of the 167 people who work at Taft are trained by the Tennessee Department of Correction and should be able to find jobs at the nearby $208 million Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, slated to open in 2013, O'Day said.

The new state prison is expected to create 400 jobs or more, according to officials.

COST ESTIMATES DISPUTED

But local lawmakers want to revisit the figures O'Day has cited in light of the important role the center plays in juvenile justice and the local economy.

State Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, who represents Bledsoe and Cumberland counties, said he wants to meet with O'Day face to face to review ideas for saving money.

"For a 5 percent budget reduction I don't think you have to close any of them (youth development centers)," he said.

Sexton suggested eliminating frozen job positions and looking for a deal with a nearby utility company to operate Taft's water treatment plant, which is now run by the facility.

"The purpose that Taft serves is it takes the offenders that the other centers can't control," he said. Closure is "not a solution to the problem."

Sexton issued a statement late Friday, calling for a more thorough analysis of data before any decisions are reached about Taft. He said he will provide the governor's office with more detailed information on the youth center.

Sexton is joined in opposing the proposed closure by lawmakers representing Taft's neighboring counties, Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, and Sens. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere and Charlotte Burkes, D-Monterey.

Harmon, who represents neighboring Sequatchie and Van Buren counties, says the Department of Children's Services "jumped in a little early" with the suggested closure of Taft and officials might not be looking at the whole picture. The immediate impact will be on area jobs, he said, but the state's youth and surrounding communities could suffer in the long term.

Taft inmates can't be put "back where they've already been disruptive," he said. "And juvenile problems and gang problems are not getting any smaller."

Harmon believes that the costs of running a water treatment plant and a farm create a misunderstanding on Taft's higher cost figures, and the $37 million price tag for "improvements" was based more on a "Christmas list" than a list of immediate needs.

The staff at Taft already has said they can do without those improvements, and Harmon agreed.

O'Day responded Friday, saying the $37 million in repairs and updates needed at Taft includes repairs to its 1932-era boiler, replacement of a security building and kitchen facility and construction of new dormitories, which were built in 1943 and 1963. Taft was built in 1918.

Department of Children's Services spokeswoman Molly Sudderth said a meeting between O'Day and lawmakers will probably be set sometime in the coming week.

A MOTHER'S STORY

Southeast Tennessee resident Karen Jones said her son had never been to any of the state's youth development centers but was sent to Taft because of the serious nature of his crime, a robbery.

She'd heard "all the horror stories about Taft, about how they let kids get beat. I cried and I cried and I cried," Jones said.

But her son "needed to be with his age group and with people with much harder offenses, which is what he did," she said.

Guns were involved in her son's crime and he needed the stricter structure at Taft to get turned around, she said.

Although the "horror stories" worried her, that changed as soon as she and her son got to the mountaintop facility, where they were "welcomed with open arms," she said.

"When my son first got there, the counselor told him, 'We're going to get you a diploma,'" Jones said.

"That's what they did. They did everything they said they would," she said. "I had some little problems with them, but when I went to the correct person, they took care of it. I have no problems with Taft."

Jones' son also benefited from the unique programs at Taft, such as interscholastic football.

"What lockdown facility do you know of that gives the boys a chance to have extracurricular activities?" she asked. "It's just heart-breaking to think they would even consider closing Taft down, for the kids and the staff up there."

RESULTS MATTER

Students assigned to Taft average a seven-month stay and, even with the more aggressive offender population, also have the highest success rate of all state youth centers when it comes to students who've been released then live in the community for 12 months without another offense, according to Sexton,

Sexton said Taft's success rate was 84 percent, compared with rates at the other four centers of 82.8 percent, 69.3 percent, 81.5 percent and 74.8 percent.

Taft students have access to more vocational areas of study, he said, and more Taft students earn their GEDs than students at other centers. Twenty students completed the GED program in 2010-2011 and 53 got their high school or special education diplomas, according to officials.

Sexton also questioned O'Day's assertion that crime rates, adult and juvenile, are in decline. He said TBI statistics show crime among juvenile males was down by 0.013 percent between 2008 and 2010, but remarked that shift was "not a statistically significant reduction."

He noted statistics also show increases in crimes such as rape, aggravated assault, arson, car theft, robbery and drug offenses.

Sudderth rebutted Sexton's remarks.

"The most recent compilation of U.S. juvenile statistics from 2008 shows a 16 percent drop between 1999 and 2008, and a 9 percent drop for juvenile violent crime for the same period," she said.

Those statistics come from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Programs, Sudderth said.

DEEP IMPACT

Bledsoe County Mayor Bobby Collier said the shuttering of Taft would send tremors through every facet of the local economy.

"It's not only going to affect unemployment, it's going to affect businesses who count on people getting those paychecks," Collier said.

Taft's closure would likely even impact local utilities, he said.

But the biggest impact "is the disservice they are doing to the children," Collier said, pointing to the unique vocational programs at Taft that can give students a leg up on a job when they're released.

"To me it's strange, you've got a model institution of rehabilitation for students and we're going to close it down," he said.

Bledsoe residents are "extremely worried" and he hopes legislators keep the issue open while the potential impact of closure is explored, he said.

According to O'Day's response on Friday, if Taft is closed, the facility would go to the state Department of General Services. Department of Children's Services officials have been "in discussions" with the Department of Finance and Administration about the future of the center's water treatment plant if Taft is closed.

It's possible it could be run by the Department of Correction or the Department of General Services, according to O'Day.

"At this point, the closure is still a recommendation," said Sudderth. "However, if Taft were to close, we would work closely with the Department of Correction on a timeline that could benefit employees."