Originally created 05/07/02

Concerns led state to close youth facility



ATHENS, Ga. - Four months of uncertainty and controversy at The Bridge Institute in Athens ended April 12, when 14 youths were shackled and transported to the mental health wing of a youth development center in Augusta.

The scene at the Athens facility housing male juvenile offenders with special mental health needs was disturbing to watch, according to a handful of the staff members responsible for preparing the children for departure.

"They've been bounced from facilities before. There were kids saying, 'No, no, you can't do this to us again,"' said Laureen Lessard, an education clerk and librarian at The Bridge. "Some were hiding under the bed and crying."

The Bridge Institute, designed to house some of the state's ever-increasing number of juvenile offenders with psychological problems, was operated by the private Virginia-based First Corrections Corp. under contract with Georgia's Department of Juvenile Justice.

The Athens facility opened in December and was forced by Juvenile Justice to close just four months later, on the Friday morning when Ms. Lessard and her colleagues were given one hour to prepare the children for departure.

DOCUMENTS OBTAINED through an Open Records Act request filed by the Athens Banner-Herald and interviews with Juvenile Justice officials and former employees show that Juvenile Justice officials did not believe the youths in the facility were receiving the treatment deemed appropriate by the state, even though First Corrections had recently employed a Juvenile Justice-mandated corrective action plan that a number of Bridge employees said was working.

The facility's four-month life span cost the state $690,000, and its closing rendered 90 people unemployed and leaves the state in need of juvenile facilities designed specifically for children with acute mental health needs.

Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Jaci Vickers said only that "the decision was made by the commissioner (Juvenile Justice head Orlando Martinez) that the services we required to be provided were not being provided."

The decision was documented in an April 12 letter that Mr. Martinez sent to John Moore, the chief operating officer of First Corrections, declaring Juvenile Justice's "intention not to renew the contract."

Ms. Vickers said it is not unusual for a facility such as The Bridge to close after four months and that success is not guaranteed. It is, she said, "like buying a brand-new car off the lot."

SOME PROBLEMS SURFACED at The Bridge Institute just one month after it opened. At that time, a residential counselor was terminated for "having inappropriate and unprofessional contact" with a resident, according to a 50-page report on a Juvenile Justice investigation acquired through an Open Records request.

According to the report, the former director of The Bridge Institute said Jan. 6 that the resident's mother told the resident's juvenile probation parole specialist "that he had had 'bed relations' with staff."

Ms. Vickers said the incident "was not the major reason" Juvenile Justice decided to close The Bridge, but that "we're always concerned when those things happen. ... Unfortunately it does happen from time to time."

The story that unfolds from some Bridge employees contradicts the bleak picture painted by Juvenile Justice's decision to terminate its contract with First Corrections.

The employees agree that a bumpy beginning in December and January had been mostly smoothed over by April.

Within one week of receiving a letter from Mr. Martinez listing Juvenile Justice's concerns about the facility, First Corrections responded with a plan of action, and according to Shelley Durocher, a teacher at The Bridge Institute, an extensive training program and new high-ranking administrators were effective in improving the facility's services.