The death of 14-year-old Gina Score in a state boot camp changed juvenile corrections in South Dakota in major ways, but critics still fault Gov. Bill Janklow for resisting inspections from outside state government.
A lawsuit settlement could open the gates to outsiders today, if only in a limited way.
This afternoon, a federal judge in Sioux Falls will consider the proposed settlement between the Youth Law Center of Washington, D.C., and the state Department of Corrections. The deal includes access for Youth Law Center inspectors to the juvenile programs at the department's Plankinton campus. (See related story.)
A separate lawsuit by Score's family is pending.
Still, even Janklow's harshest critics agree his administration has improved juvenile corrections since Score's death on July 21, 1999.
"We've got a ways to go, but there have been changes," said Deb Phillips, West River director of an advocacy group called Parents Who Care.
State Corrections Secretary Jeff Bloomberg offers a 26-page report itemizing dozens of changes in personnel, policies and programs related to juvenile corrections.
Some state officials call the changes "the Gina Score effect," and nowhere is the effect more evident than at the new EXCEL Program, located in the old Youth Forestry Camp, in a quiet gulch in Custer State Park.
'Wellness' replaces shock treatment
"Put your knee into it!" EXCEL Director Amy Lein told a dozen girls Friday afternoon during a step-aerobic exercise session.
They were working out in the new log chapel at the Youth Forestry Camp, which now is the east campus of the Custer Youth Corrections Center.
Lein exercises regularly with the girls at EXCEL, even though she is seven months pregnant. "It's getting a little more difficult," she admitted, puffing between sets Friday.
Lein is an athlete. When she played basketball at Mount Marty, she set the South Dakota collegiate record for career rebounding. Pregnant or not, she could run most of her girls into the ground, but that clearly wasn't her objective Friday. EXCEL is a radical departure from the program it replaced.
Gina Score was overweight and out of shape when she arrived at the boot camp in Plankinton. Poorly trained counselors ran Score until she collapsed, then the staff delayed medical treatment for hours. When Score's heart stopped in the ambulance, her temperature was more than 108 degrees.
In contrast, "wellness instructors" at EXCEL test all the girls and assign them in one of three fitness categories. Girls in the lowest category exercise wearing heart monitors. All girls take monthly step tests to gauge cardiovascular fitness.
One girl who will graduate next week said the hardest part of the program was "opening up to my counselor."
EXCEL started with six girls last summer. It has grown to 16. By January there will be 24. All EXCEL girls are nonviolent offenders in the "low" or "moderate" risk categories. About half are "children in need of supervision," CHINS, whose only offense may have been chronic truancy or similar problems.
Even Jennifer Ring, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Dakotas, who has been a relentless juvenile-corrections critic, has praised EXCEL.
Doug Herrmann, superintendent of the Custer Youth Corrections Center, also oversees the Q.U.E.S.T. program on the east campus, for higher risk girls, and the boys boot camp and two boys living centers on the west campus, five miles south of Custer.
Herrmann, a former NFL lineman, is an advocate for boys boot camps, but he designed EXCEL on a much gentler "wellness model" that he says works better for girls.
So far, 10 girls have graduated from EXCEL. Herrmann says all are doing well. His goal for the new log chapel: "I hope that someday a girl who graduates from here will come back and get married there."
Parents get phone calls
EXCEL is the flagship of the new juvenile corrections system, but Bloomberg's 26-page report details dozens of system-wide changes.
They include new regulations requiring better communications with parents. For example, families get monthly progress reports now. They also get immediate telephone calls for any serious disciplinary action or health problems.
Some staff resisted the required phone calls, but Bloomberg believes they make the system work better. He got three or four complaints a day the summer Gina Score died. Now he gets three or four a month.
Problems at Plankinton went beyond the girl's boot camp.
Critics of Plankinton's Female Secure Unit, for the most serious offenders, had a laundry list of complaints, including abusive use of restraints and pepper spray, and strip searches by male staff.
Those issues are moot because the Female Secure Unit has closed. Bloomberg said the small number of high-risk girls in South Dakota doesn't justify a new program, so the state places those girls in private facilities.
The Juvenile Prison at Plankinton is for boys with the most serious offenses. Problems there included dirty cells, poorly trained staff, inadequate counseling and an inmate population so out of control that boys rioted.
New Plankinton Superintendent Owen Spurrell has restored order, Bloomberg said. Spurrell has experience as a youth counselor and as director of security at the men's prison. "He also cares about kids," Bloomberg said.
The Plankinton staff also got crisis intervention training this year.
In addition, Bloomberg added staff training specialists at Custer and Plankinton, and his department standardized training requirements. New employees get 80 hours now.
There also are also two full-time mental health professionals at Custer and Plankinton, instead of just one, and Bloomberg also raised the wages of direct-care staff, by $1.50 an hour.
Those measures are only a small sampling of the changes Janklow and Bloomberg ordered. Ring applauds most of them, but she says it has taken a lawsuit to find money to hire counselors and trainers and raise salaries.
Lawmakers enact changes
The Legislature also enacted changes, though almost all of them had the governor's stamp of approval.
Laws passed earlier this year:
-Required progress reports on children to the judges who sentenced them.
-Restricted use of restraints, such as shackles, which are now allowed only to prevent bodily harm or during transportation between facilities or to court.
-Mandated reviews by a team of state employees on all placements of children in the CHINS category to ensure the "least restrictive placement commensurate with the best interests of the child."
-Designated corrections workers as "mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect."
Other proposed laws did not pass.
In a marathon session near the end of this year's session, the Republican-controlled Legislature killed bills proposed by Democrats and parent activists. "We called it the Monday night massacre," Deb Phillips said.
The bills killed included "Gina's Law," a bill of rights for children in state custody.
The bill would have established a right to be released for religious practices or for significant family events. It would have provided even more phone calls and visits by parents.
So-called "status offenders," kids whose only crime was related to their age, such as truancy, running away or underage drinking, would have been separated from juvenile delinquents.
Democrats and parent activists also wanted an independent ombudsman. The Legislature did create a "juvenile corrections monitor," but critics say the bill was watered down.
Critics skeptical of monitor
Sen. Fred Whiting, R-Rapid City, drafted the original bill to create an advocate for children incarcerated in South Dakota. Whiting's ombudsman would have been independent of the governor's office. In fact, it would have been independent of the entire executive branch, and the ombudsman even would have had the power to sue state government.
After wrangling with the governor - Whiting calls it a "polite discussion" - Whiting reluctantly agreed to a juvenile corrections "monitor" within the executive branch of government but outside the Department of Corrections.
Ring thinks that system is flawed, especially because the public doesn't have access to reports. The monitor reports to the governor and the Legislature.
"Certainly, there should be reports to the public about the number of complaints made, the nature of the complaints and what his specific findings were in each case," Ring said. "This is not a viable oversight technique for anybody except possibly the governor's office."
Retiring Sen. Rebecca Dunn, D-Sioux Falls, agrees. "It needs to be someone from outside the system for it to be an appropriate monitor," Dunn said.
Sen. Garry Moore, D-Yankton, is on the Legislature's Government Operations and Audit committee, which gets the reports. "I'm a little bit concerned we're not seeing everything we need to see as it relates to juvenile corrections," Moore said. He also thinks a separate committee should oversee juvenile corrections.
Janklow hired former FBI agent John Ellis to be the juvenile monitor.
"Nobody questions his integrity," Bloomberg says. "This guy is doing his job. He has total access to go anywhere and talk to anyone he wants."
Juveniles in state facilities can drop complaints into locked boxes. Only Ellis, or staff he designates, can open the boxes.
Bloomberg also said Ellis makes full reports to the Legislature.
But Ellis declined to be interviewed for this story.
So far, according to the latest reports, Ellis has investigated 53 complaints. Just one was substantiated, Bloomberg said, and it resulted in a change in the way staff monitors suicide prevention.
'Gina Score effect' continues
The monitor debates aside, the fact is that the tragic death of a 14-year-old girl has had a far-reaching impact on the way South Dakota treats kids in trouble, beginning even before children enter the corrections system.
Judges have been more reluctant to sentence kids to the Department of Corrections since Score's death. Commitments ran 40 a month before Score's death. They dropped to about 20 month last spring. "That's definitely the Gina Score effect," Bloomberg said.
Commitments are inching back up, but the juvenile corrections population is way down - from 462 in July 1999, when Score died, to 313 last July.
That's partly due to a decrease in juvenile crime, but it's also due to policy changes that resulted from Score's death.
And more changes are coming. Even some Republican legislators, Whiting among them, think the state's juvenile corrections system should seek national accreditation, a move the Janklow administration has resisted.
"That would be the politically expedient thing to do," Bloomberg said. "It would take 18 months. I'll be gone by then." His point is, accreditation would be expensive, but the Janklow administration won't have to find the money.
Whiting says has a different view. "I think one has to ask how expensive has the whole Gina Score episode been," he said. "Accreditation is a tedious and expensive exercise, but you benefit by the discipline."
Jennifer Ring of the ACLU said accreditation offers a measure of prevention. North Dakota is accredited, she said. That state did not need a "Gina Score effect."