Cook: Learn from Oklahoma; keep Taft Youth Center open

Cook: Learn from Oklahoma; keep Taft Youth Center open

March 26th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Here's what happened in Oklahoma.

Last year, wanting to cut 5 percent from its budget, the Office of Juvenile Affairs -- Oklahoma's version of Tennessee's Department of Children's Services -- decided to close L.E. Rader Center in Sand Springs.

Rader was the state's only maximum-security youth center, the place that housed the most violent youth. Just like our state's Taft Youth Center in Pikeville, Tenn., which is set to close June 30.

Knowing that no proper plans had been made to update other medium-security facilities in Oklahoma to handle the potential flood of youth offenders, the Department of Justice pleaded with the Office of Juvenile Affairs, warning that things could go terribly wrong if Rader's juveniles were transferred.

The Office of Juvenile Affairs ignored the warnings and began moving youths to other facilities and began to shut Rader down.

Within weeks, all hell broke loose.

Kids escaped from their new, less-secure facilities. One boy suffered a brain injury after being beaten at night in his bed by a youth who had formerly been housed at Rader -- the only place in the state that could lock night-time doors on its youth.

There were riots. A "full-blown riot," as one police officer told The Tulsa World.

Why does this matter to us in Tennessee?

"That's what is going to happen here," said an administrator with Taft who wished to remain anonymous, afraid of retribution

from officials within Department of Children's Services. I'll call him Smith.

"Rader is Oklahoma's Taft," said Smith. "Tennessee is getting ready to do exactly the same thing."

On Thursday, state officials drove to Taft to deliver some damning news -- on June 30, the doors will shut. Wanting to cut budgets by 5 percent, Gov. Bill Haslam and Department of Children's Services Commissioner Kathryn O'Day have not included money for Taft in the upcoming budget.

It's going to come back and haunt them. And us.

The Pikeville juvenile detention center houses what Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, calls "the meanest of the mean." Yet the miracle of Taft is that some of these kids come in tougher than sledgehammers, yet leave educated, restored, rehabilitated.

Based on state findings, Taft has the lowest recidivism rate in Tennessee [3 percent] and, judging by a 2011 study produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, one of the lowest recidivism rates in the nation.

The entire nation.

Legislators can refuse to pass the governor's budget until funding is restored to Taft. Or they can allow Taft to be shut down, then watch their state unravel as the youth center most successful at treating dangerous juveniles closes.

Taft documents show that between 2006 and 2011, administrators at other youth centers -- Mountain View, Woodland Hills and Wilder -- transferred 265 youth to Taft.

"They threaten their kids with sending them to Taft," said Smith. "They don't want Taft to close because it scares them to death they're going to get kids back they sent here."

In that five-year period, Woodland Hills transferred more juveniles [129] to Taft than any other youth center. Woodland Hills was also the site of a riot in 2004. Guess where they sent the troublemakers?

"We got them," said Smith.

Woodland Hills was also the subject of a 2010 federal investigation that documented the institution as having some of the highest rates of sexual abuse in the nation.

But they want to shut Taft down?

It's going to be like a boomerang. Shutting down Taft will exacerbate the problems, not solve them. And all of the cost and violence will come right back down on us, tenfold.

Just ask Oklahoma.

But here's the trick: We still have time to make another decision. If some of our state's most violent teenagers can leave Taft as humane, educated citizens -- lions becoming lambs -- then God knows a few Democrats and Republicans can agree on this one issue, preventing passage of a budget that doesn't fund Taft.

How much is keeping Taft open worth?

It's going to be a lot cheaper than the cost of closing it.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@hushmail.com.