The Southwest Kansas Regional Juvenile Detention Center, the only juvenile detention center serving the western half of the state, is looking to retrofit two of its four holding pods, or 14 of its 28 beds, into an emergency shelter for teens under the care of St. Francis Community Services.

The move is meant to ensure the center can keep its doors open, as well as meet a local need.

As of mid-2017, a Kansas Senate bill dictated that only underage offenders found guilty of criminal charges could be sent to juvenile detention centers, and the change led to a significant drop in children served and beds used Garden City’s facility.

In 2013, 2014 and 2015, over 400 children stayed well over 4,500 nights at the center before numbers began to dip in 2016 and 2017. As of Nov. 1, 115 youths had stayed 690 nights at the center, according to the facility’s application for a grant to fund the shelter. The drop could mean the building’s closure within two years, said Katrina Pollet, executive director of the JDC.

Converting half the facility into an emergency shelter would pass more kids through the building and prevent that from happening, Pollet said. But more importantly, it would help the center become a space for children with no place to go and provide a service for kids that will no longer be eligible for the detention center, she said.

Starting in July 2019, juvenile detention facilities will no longer be considered a placement option for minors classified as Children In Need of Care, or children under protective custody, some of which may have committed a crime and not yet been through the court system, Pollet said.

The shelter would allow the facility to be a safety net for those kids, ages 14 to 17 and not allowed to go home.

“It's important that we then try to figure out 'What are we going to do?' since we didn't have very many kids that qualified for juvenile detention anymore. Do we close this wonderful building?” Pollet said. “ … We thought since we care so much about these age groups and we want to help them, why not ask the state if we can't retrofit and be a group home?”

Finney County commissioners approved the center’s request to apply for an Emergency Shelter grant from the Kansas Department of Corrections that would cover the $370,000 plus renovation plan at no cost to the county. Should the center secure the grant — it will hear back in about a month — Pollet said she hopes to open the shelter in early April 2019.

The renovations would construct a wall that would cut the center in half: one side for the JDC and one for the shelter, each entirely cut off from the other from a client standpoint. Both sides would have two pods, one for males and one for females, with seven beds per pod.

The facility will take in kids slowly so the staff has time to learn the ropes, Pollet said, but likely would be at full capacity within 30 to 45 days of opening. There are definitely enough kids, she said.

With the ramifications of the Senate bill, she said there would be enough space in the detention center even after incorporating the shelter.

Where the detention center is minimalist by design, the shelter would be far warmer and more open, Pollet said. Individual rooms would include new beds, nightstands to hold the minor’s belongings and lighter doors, and common areas will be furnished with comfortable furniture and an expanded kitchen with bar seating. They’re meant to feel more like homes.

The project would cover the remodel, as well as staff training for the new environment, Pollet said.

Like the detention center, the shelter would prioritize southwest Kansas residents, but also often be open to minors across the state. Keeping kids close means kids usually could continue to go to the same schools and their families would be within an affordable driving distance rather than placed across the state, Pollet said. It would let the center work closely with families and make reunification a greater possibility, she said.

Unlike the detention center, kids staying at the shelter would have a significant amount of freedom. They would go to school and have the option to keep a job outside of the building, go on errands or excursions with staff members and go out with friends with permission. By partnering with St. Francis, it would operate under foster care rules, Pollet said.

The shelter would emphasize life skills on weekends, such as cooking, cleaning and social skills, and kids and their families would be in close proximity to the Finney County Community Services Center, located next door, Pollet said.

The center will partner with other local agencies to provide different services to those staying at the shelter, including Garden City USD 457, Compass Behavioral Health, Genesis Family Health, Siena Medical Clinic and the 25th Judicial District Child In Need of Care Taskforce.

The shelter will often be a short-term living facility for the kids that use it — those that come for emergency shelter can legally only stay 72 hours before a judge must rule on whether they will stay at the shelter or go home.

It’s hard to make a lasting impact for those that only stay three days, Pollet said, though she’s hopeful the connecting Community Services Center will help children and their families become stronger and break a cycle of harmful behavior.

"I think it's going to allow the family unit as a whole to be able to build stronger bonds…” Pollet said. “Being able to do all of that stuff makes them better and more productive members of society. It makes Finney County a safer place to live and to work. It's just better for all of us in the long-term if we stop that cycle of criminal activity right away when they're teenagers ... We can stop things now and fix things for them to be better adults.”

 

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.