ST. GEORGE — The newly renovated Washington County Youth Center is moving youth crisis counseling and services forward in a positive direction by providing no-cost behavioral health services to youth ages 10-18 and their families, without the need for state or court interventions.
The facility, formerly known as the Dixie Area Detention Center, was built in 2004 as a secure lockdown facility for youth who had offenses out in the community.
“They come here to keep their community safe as they go through due process,” Barry Howard, the center’s assistant program director, said.
The facility as a whole was built in anticipation of population growth and with expansion in mind, Howard said.
But, over the years, the number of youth coming into the detention center started to go down.
To that end, what was once supposed to act as an expansion for more detention beds in the Washington County Youth Center, now houses the Washington County Youth Crisis Center along with other services.
The renovation brought all of Washington County’s Utah Division of Juvenile Justice Services, including the existing detention facilities under one, albeit secured and separated, roof in Hurricane.
The decline in overall youth detentions can largely be attributed to statewide comprehensive juvenile justice reform, which has set out to improve public safety, reduce costs and reduce recidivism, Rep. Lowry Snow said.
In 2016, Snow, who represents House District 74, was asked to be part of a joint task force to study the juvenile justice system in the state and see what, if anything, could be done to improve it.
After months of studying, an effort that involved the court systems, schools, law enforcement, Juvenile Justice Services and more, juvenile justice reform legislation was introduced by Snow in 2017.
The legislation passed and began being implemented in 2018, Snow said, adding that there have already been amendments added to the legislation as the need has arisen.
“That process continues,” Snow said.
One of the major reform concepts was reducing the number of youth being removed from their homes and being placed into secured care or detention facilities for low-level offenses when it wasn’t a public safety issue.
“We had a long term tradition of doing that for sometimes low-level offenses, as low-level as truancy,” Snow said.
The ongoing reforms have focused instead on intervention services, like the ones being offered at the Washington County Youth Center.
Services include mental and behavioral health counseling, emergency shelter, crisis step down, interventions with schools and interventions with families.
It is utilizing the home and the family wherever possible, Snow said, as part of the treatment rather than isolating the youth from their families as a punishment.
As a result of the reforms, the state has seen a drastic reduction in detention stays among youth, so much so that a number of detention facilities and/or beds have been shut down, allowing them to focus their resources on those front end intervention services, Snow said.
Prior to reform, in just the 5th Judicial District – Beaver, Iron and Washington counties – the juvenile justice system saw a high of approximately 20 youth per night in a detention facility bed. Today they see an average of about four per night, Brett Peterson, the Director of Juvenile Justice Services for the state, said.
As they have switched their focus to nonlocked responses, 26 locked detention beds have closed in the 5th Judicial District alone.
In the 2020 fiscal year, Juvenile Justice Services has served over 450 unique youth in the crisis shelter, early intervention, school-based outreach and day skills programs, serving an average of 29.6 youth per day.
Peterson said it was a threefold change.
“It’s a policy change, it’s a philosophical change, it’s a practice change,” he said, adding that it was a magic moment when they realized they don’t have to push kids into formal systems – court involvement or detention facilities – to get kids with problematic behavior the services they need.
Howard said they see a wide range of youth coming through the door, from kids who just need a break from a potentially volatile family situation to kids in the child welfare or foster care system who may need a safe space to sleep for a few days.
The center also works with partner agencies like Utah Foster Care, the Division of Child and Family Services, law enforcement and schools to connect youth with services they need, Howard said.
As youth come to the facility, whether it is for a break for the day, mental or behavioral health counseling, skill-building classes, conflict intervention or a warm bed for the night, Howard said they will get the best care possible.
“We have an amazing staff that are highly trained, they are professional, they’re passionate, they love to do this, they know how to work with young people and they just love to do it,” he said.
Peterson said knowing that these intervention services are working to reduce recidivism and create a better juvenile justice system is very rewarding.
“To be able to find ways and approaches that can stop that (recidivism) but that is still responsive to our community and creates a better path, that’s really rewarding,” Peterson said.
For more information about youth crisis services or to make an online referral, visit the Juvenile Justice Services website or call 435-627-2800. The Washington County Youth Center is located at 330 S. 5300 West in Hurricane.
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