In Colorado’s most troubled children of last resort, the doors are not locked.
And the children run.
They climb fences and pass through gates. They run away from employees, who are not allowed to block or contain them, and roam the city streets for hours or sometimes days.
Children and adolescents flee residential treatment centers in Colorado so often that local police departments are irritated by frequent calls to look for them, and the consequences have been deadly, an investigation by The Colorado Sun and 9News found.
This is the first in a joint Colorado Sun / 9News series examining residential treatment centers where Colorado homes are home to young people and children with serious behavioral problems.
- Monday: The deadly consequences when children run away from residential treatment centers in Colorado
- Third: The emotional bites, bruises and scars of caring for Colorado’s most troubled youth: workers share their stories
- Wednesday: Even parents of children in foster care cannot obtain information about their safety. Recommendations that have never been followed.
Two boys, aged 12 and 15, were killed in separate incidents with frighteningly similar details – both were hit by cars late at night after fleeing different residential treatment centers, two years apart.
Their deaths and the growing problem of escape from some residential daycare centers have prompted advocates to raise questions about whether years of inadequate funding have made the centers dangerous. They also wonder whether Colorado should reexamine the laws that prohibit centers from locking their doors or using physical force to prevent children from escaping.
Some child health experts say the child’s mental health system is inadequate, allowing problems to grow to the point that they need a treatment center 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. By the time children reach residential care, their problems are so acute that the findings are elusive. Children who end up in residential centers are traumatized by past abuse and neglect and have behavior problems so out of control that they are no longer safe living with families.
At this point, these children live in a fight or flight mode. And they run.
“Fugitive behavior really puts children in danger,” said Stephanie Villafuerte, Colorado’s child protection ombudsman. “We see children being sold for sex trafficking. We see children who have been injured in accidents. We see children who have been killed. “
In some cases, children placed in the 52 Colorado-licensed residential centers flee and never return. More than 200 children and adolescents have left Colorado’s foster care system in the past three years on the run.
Their child welfare cases were closed. They were lost.
Timmy was hit on a dark road a few hours after running
Elizabeth Montoya’s son had been dying for almost 24 hours before she even knew it.
Timmy Montoya-Kloepfel, who had autism and severe depression, was at the Tennyson Center for Children in northwest Denver for less than a week. Montoya sent him there with the hope that 24-hour supervision and treatment for his mental health problems would help make him better. Instead, he was killed.
Timmy, 12, fled Tennyson on June 21, according to police records. He had run away many times, and each time Timmy borrowed a cell phone or asked someone to call the police so he could find his way home, or to one of the residential treatment centers where he lived last year of his short life.
But that night, he never called. Timmy was hit by a Chevy Tahoe at about 9:20 pm. on a dark stretch of Interstate 70 Frontage Road in Wheat Ridge with such force that he was thrown from one of his black Nikes, according to a police report. He was taken to a hospital with a fractured skull, two broken legs and a broken spleen.
But the authorities did not know who he was because he had neither an identity nor a cell phone. The police did not realize that he was missing at the Tennyson Center until the following day.
The Tahoe driver told police he saw Timmy trying to get up from where he was lying on the road and hit the brake. The man was so upset that he was unable to tell the 911 operator his location and signaled another vehicle for help, according to the police report.
Montoya, at his home in Colorado Springs, knew that Timmy was missing and prayed that he would appear as all the times before. She tried to get some sleep. The next day, she dropped to her knees and said, “God, I need something from you,” she recalled.
“Immediately, Psalm 23 came to mind,” said Montoya. It wasn’t what she wanted to touch in her ears. “Yes, although I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear evil.” Montoya, devastated by fear, kept imagining her son lying on the side of a road, mistreated. But in his view, he had been beaten, not run over by a car.
It was not before 11:30 pm. on June 22 – about 26 hours after his son was hit – Colorado Springs police knocked on Montoya’s door, according to public documents on the case. Timmy, she was told, was clinging to life in a hospital bed in Denver. They showed her a picture on a cell phone and asked if it was her son. His hair was shaved and there were tubes covering his face, said Montoya.
She chose not to believe it was Timmy.
Still, Montoya ran north, to the hospital. “And when I entered the room,” she said, tears streaming down her face as she remembered that night, “I can’t even tell you. I just thought … that very minute, like I was going to give my whole life. If I had to stay by his side and feed him, I would give my whole life for him. “
For the rest of her life, she sat next to him. Timmy died on June 23.
“This is your job. Stop calling us! “
Tensions between local police departments and residential childcare have increased.
The Denver Police Department was called to the Tennyson Center for Children 357 times in 2020. In the past three years, the center has contacted the police 938 times, a third of the time to report an escape, according to police records requested by The Sun / 9News.
Denver police were called to the Mount Saint Vincent treatment center, also in the northwest part of the city, about twice a week, on average, in 2019 and 2020, so often that police officers began to meet with the leaders of the orphanage in late 2019 to discuss the drain in your time. The department told Mount Saint Vincent that the police were not a “taxi service” to bring fugitives back and that, from now on, the police would respond only if someone was in imminent danger.
But the calls continued, and on January 5, 2020, an angry policeman answering the fourth morning call from the center grabbed a child by the arms and called the children who had fled the campus in northwest Denver Denver “animals” and “shit, ”According to images from the body camera and an internal affairs report obtained by The Sun / 9News.
At 7 am that day, children were carrying broken windowpanes and running in the street, the center told Denver police. At 7:43 am, the house told police that children were trying to be hit by cars. The third call in the morning concerned children who had left the campus and were fighting on a corner.
On the fourth call, at 9:22 am, the sergeant. Eric Lee was clearly irritated, as evidenced by audio images captured by his body camera when he left the street near a group of fugitives and officials who were following them.
“Guys, take these kids and take them back!” the police officer shouted as the children who had fled the campus tried to get into their car. “This is your job. Stop calling us! “
When an employee tried to tell him that he was not allowed to physically grab the children and force them back into the building, he replied: “If you are telling me that you are ill-equipped to take care of these children, then you need to be closed down by the state. Will you just watch them? Is that your plan? “
Then, while a runaway girl tried to bite a team member in the face, Lee grabbed the girl’s arms and she fell to the floor, according to images of the incident. Lee pulled the girl off the floor by one arm and started walking with her down the street.
“This is ridiculous,” said Lee, who was later punished for misconduct by an officer, to the Mount Saint Vincent team. “Four times do you call us today? Four times?”
Mount Saint Vincent officials said they call the Denver police only as a last resort and that the center’s policy is to “run alongside” the fugitives to make sure they are safe.
“The typical child being cared for in our residential program has not been successful in five previous placements outside the home,” the center said in an e-mailed statement. “These children have been victimized in indescribable ways and often behave in ways that reflect their life experience, which sometimes results in fights or flight of people, events or circumstances.”
Also in 2020, the Denver Police were struggling with a large number of calls from the Tennyson Center.
Lieutenant Daryl Miller wrote to Tennyson in May last year, noting that the department had reached a “tipping point” on campus calls, according to emails obtained by The Sun / 9News through the Colorado Open Records Act The officers went to the center eight times a day before Miller sent the e-mail asking for a meeting.
Denver police reported that they spent 875 hours, equivalent to 36 days, responding to calls related to Tennyson from March to mid-July last year. During that time, about 100 calls came from citizens.
The high volume of calls continued in 2021. The Denver police were so concerned with “insufficient supervision” at the Tennyson Center for Children that the sergeant. Brian Cotter, with the department’s missing persons unit, alerted Denver’s child welfare authorities. In an email obtained by The Sun / 9News, Cotter noted that the police had held meetings with the center, but “it appears that the improvements are not happening.”
Center staff were unable to “prevent children from causing problems in the neighborhood,” he wrote in the January 7 email.
Tennyson, under threat of licensing action by the state, decided in February to end its residential program, although it remains open for schools and day care.
In Westminster, a residential treatment center called Devereux Cleo Wallace is regularly the address with the highest number of police reports in the entire Denver suburb.
The police have been working in recent years to reduce the volume of calls coming in from facilities, said Westminster Police Commander Tim Read. After 2018, when the youth house called the police 714 times, including 278 times to report fugitives, the police department talked to the team about the center’s “business model”, Read said.
“One of the points of conversation was:‘ We can’t be your personal line, right? We can’t be your business model, so let’s talk about it. How can we change that? ‘”, Read recalled. “That’s when we had to have those difficult conversations and say, we can’t be your auxiliary support, right? You have to be able to manage. “
Cleo Wallace’s team frequently stopped calling the police and instead tried to follow the young people on the track and encourage them to return to the facility, Read said. Police officers want to help young people the department calls “Cleo children”, but police officers are often very busy with real crimes, he said.
Police officers walked the campus a few years ago and pointed out environmental changes that would reduce fugitives or children climbing on the roof, suggesting changes to the fence, spikes and brushwood, Read said. There was discussion about putting up a higher fence, but the offer for the job came back to $ 800,000, Read said.
Calls to the police dropped dramatically in 2020. But this spring, reports are going up again. Westminster police received 62 contacts from Cleo Wallace in April alone, Read said.
“I know this will be the highest volume of calls from anywhere in the city,” he said.
Leah Yaw, a senior vice president at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, which operates Cleo Wallace, said the increase in calls this spring was due to a change in the way the police count calls and because of two “reactive behavioral” children.
“Children have rights”
Colorado law says residential daycare centers cannot use locks, physical force or locked doors to prevent children from leaving. Only in emergency situations, such as a child hitting another child, can employees use physical support to restrain children. Taking a child by the arm to prevent him from going out on the street does not count.
“These are not prisons,” said Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the State Office for Children, Youth and Families, which licenses and investigates residential centers. “These are houses. These children have the ability to leave and you cannot prevent them from leaving and you cannot prevent them from leaving a facility. ”
Children who are at “imminent risk” of causing harm to themselves or others can go to a higher level of care, such as a locked psychiatric facility, she said.
Laws that prevent employees from using physical force or blocking children in rooms or buildings are designed to protect children who have been abused, including sexual assault, and who have mental or sensory health problems and do not like to be touched.
“Children have rights,” said Castillo Cohen. “We are talking about a child who may have suffered abuse at the hands of an adult he trusted. They may be on the autism spectrum and physical touch can really exacerbate your movements. “
Becky Miller Updike, who represents residential treatment centers as director of the Colorado Family and Child Agencies Association, said she understands the spirit of the law, but in practice, if children are on the run and being hit by cars, it is not working.
Her organization tried to open a “politically charged conversation” about containment and locked door laws, but state officials had no interest in having it, she said. In addition to being hit by cars, there are other tragic consequences of fleeing – 60% of all child victims of sex trafficking were previously in the child welfare system, according to the National Foster Youth Insitute.
“Children have rights. But they also have the right to be kept safe, ”said Updike, a former state child protection ombudsman. “If a child leaves without a phone or money, how are they going to get money?”
Despite the problems, residential centers are needed, child welfare experts say, especially for children whose behavioral problems have led to a series of unsuccessful foster homes, expulsion from school or destructive behavior that makes life with their families or families uncontrollable adoptive parents. Many of the young people are depressed, suicidal and need constant supervision. Residential treatment centers offer intensive mental health counseling, as well as artistic and musical therapies.
But since 2007, more than 40 Colorado centers have closed their doors – either because they were closed by the state or because they could not remain open. Many supplement the state funding they receive, $ 250- $ 600 per day per child, depending on the severity of the child’s problems, asking for donations.
There were 365 young Colorado adopters in residential centers in late 2020, compared with 1,295 in 2010, according to data from the state’s Department of Human Services.
Locks come like Colorado changes your child welfare system spend more money on preventing child abuse and keeping children with their families, and less on institutional care. At the same time, however, the mental health problems of adolescents and children in the system have become more acute.
There are not enough beds in residential treatment centers in the state to accommodate referrals from county child welfare departments that are trying to place young people with serious behavioral problems, said Updike. A recent survey of the state’s largest centers found that while they had an average of 586 county requests per month to place children, the centers could provide only 453 beds.
Colorado counties send about 20 children each year to out-of-state facilities.
A hole in mental health
In the two years before he died, Timmy was stuck in a noose – at home for a few days or weeks, then at a mental hospital or residential treatment center, and to repeat. He regularly threatened to take his own life, but his mother never thought he would.
Timmy ate half a tube of toothpaste and warned his mother that he might die. He threatened to swallow isopropyl alcohol. He licked an enamel bottle and sprayed hair spray in his mouth. He found his brother’s machete and told Montoya, a single mother, she better call someone before he uses it.
Montoya lived in a constant state of alert and kept his kitchen knives in a locked box.
“Autistic children will do some kind of repetitive movement indefinitely,” said Montoya. “That was his thing.”
Each time, Montoya took him to a walking crisis center. If Timmy didn’t calm down in a few hours, they would put him in a residential care facility. Timmy lived for seven months at Mount Saint Vincent in Denver. There, he managed to climb one 3.5 meters and escape for a few hours, Montoya said, but returned safely.
When Timmy returned to live at home, Montoya was able to enroll him in a state program, called Medicaid Dismissal, which was supposed to provide therapy for Timmy while he lived with his mother. He should also provide Montoya with temporary care when she needed a break and didn’t make sure he wasn’t trying to get hurt or run away from home.
But no one in the Colorado Springs area offered the services covered by the new state program, Montoya said.
And the cycle continued.
Montoya continued to take his son to the local emergency center, and when his mental health problems became intense again for him to function at home, Timmy went to a residential treatment center. This time, it was Tennyson, and within a week, he ran away and was hit by a car.
Almost a year after Timmy’s death, Montoya still has his son’s baseball caps and skateboards hanging on the wall. She donated his clothes to a family in her church. When the memories come to her, she writes them in a diary so they don’t get lost.
Timmy loved fishing and camping and talked to strangers when he was a child, when he and his mother went on the bus together. Montoya said he tried to get the help they needed when he started suffering from mental health problems around the age of 10, but he never managed to make it better. In the end, she said, the system failed in the worst possible way.
Now, Montoya wants Timmy’s death to force a change in the child welfare system and for authorities to investigate. She wants them to learn what went wrong and use it to make other children safer. Montoya describes herself today as a statue with an empty center, she said. “There is a giant hole in my life.
“Timmy was such a beautiful child and he loved people very much. But he fought. He fought suicide. He fought the urge to get hurt and many children today are going through the same thing, and we have to be aware as adults, whether we are parents or not. ”
Andrew was hit by a drunk driver after running away
What happened to Timmy was an almost identical repetition of the way Andrew Potter, 15, died two summers earlier.
Andrew, who had a history of leakage, left the Devereux Cleo Wallace campus in Westminster on August 31, 2018 and was hit by a car on the Wadsworth Parkway. He died on the spot, with his shoes and cell phone scattered on the road.
Andrew was hit and killed by an alleged drunk driver shortly after 11:00 pm. The driver, Elliot Bond, fled the scene of the accident, but a witness saw him park in a side street. Bond was driving his head out of his Audi window because the windshield was so broken when he hit Andrew that he couldn’t see properly, according to police records.
“Is the guy right back there?” Bond asked when the police caught up with him.
Andrew and two other teenagers left Cleo Wallace at around 6 pm. that night, jumping over a fence in the back and zigzagging through a nearby apartment complex. The facility reported the three boys as fugitives at around 7:30 pm, according to police records.
The teenagers – all diagnosed with severe mood disorders – spent time on a Target and King Soopers before running through Wadsworth in the dark, against the traffic light. The first two boys managed to cross the intersection, but Andrew, just behind, was hit.
The two other boys ran back to Cleo Wallace because they didn’t want to be in trouble, leaving Andrew on the road, according to the police report.
In a lawsuit filed against Devereux Behavioral Health, the teenager’s adoptive parents claim that the center did not adequately supervise their child. When contacted by The Sun / 9News, the parents said they could not comment on the case while the lawsuit was pending.
Bond, who pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide, was sentenced to five years in community prisons.
Yaw, with Devereux Cleo Wallace, said he could not comment on whether the center changed policy after Andrew’s death because of pending litigation. But she said that in 2018, the same year he died, the center started calling the police about each fugitive, instead of the previous faxing protocol. The policy of Cleo Wallace, who currently has 32 children, is to follow the fugitives on foot or by vehicle, she said.
“A significant red flag”
The problem of escape is widespread enough across the country that the US Department of Health and Human Services has released a role in 2020 review protocols to report missing children and for how long to keep a child welfare case open for a fugitive who has not returned.
On any given day in 2018, 4,247 youths in orphanages were in “flight status”, according to the report.
THE American Academy of Pediatrics article published in February 2020, it reported that 30% of young people aged 12 and over in foster homes outside the home fled. Teens in an orphanage are 2.5 times more likely to run away than those who are not in an orphanage, according to the academy. Young people who lived in residential treatment centers were more likely to run away than those placed with relatives, and the more placements in adoption, the more likely a teenager is to run away.
Updike, who represents several residential centers, called his confidence in the police response “a very significant red flag for us as a system.”
Castillo Cohen, of the state child welfare division, said that it is not a “runaway problem”, but a systemic problem, a failure to get children to have the help they need early in their lives.
“The child has been through so much in life or is struggling and I don’t want it to be an uncontrolled problem because it really focuses on the child,” she said. “I want us to think of it as a systemic problem. And how can we meet their needs in a way that they don’t feel they need to escape? “
9News reporter Jeremy Jojola contributed to this report.