Investigators find four cases of maltreatment at defunct Mesabi Academy
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St. Louis County Child Protection Services has found four cases of maltreatment at a now-closed juvenile correctional facility in northeastern Minnesota. In a wide-ranging set of documents released late last week, county investigators said that in one instance an employee of Mesabi Academy broke the clavicle of a youth after shoving him against a wall.
In another, a staff member ignored fighting between residents and even slept on the job while kids fought, investigators found. The findings are the latest from a months-long investigation by the county into the Buhl, Minn.,-based facility. Child protection investigators say they are still looking into nearly two dozen other potential cases of maltreatment at Mesabi Academy.
In addition, the St. Louis County Sheriff's Department released records showing repeated assaults by residents on staff members or other residents at the facility and even a successful escape attempt in 2016. Six residents were charged criminally in connection with those incidents.
The findings come two months after Mesabi Academy's parent company, Pennsylvania-based KidsPeace, announced it was closing the facility. KidsPeace closed Mesabi Academy after officials with the Minnesota Department of Human Services and several counties removed more than 40 boys from the 123-bed facility. The state and counties took those steps after an investigation by APM Reports focused on allegations of misconduct and the large number of complaints at the facility.
When it closed, counties had to find places for dozens of other boys that county social workers or judges had placed at Mesabi Academy.
Hennepin and Ramsey County officials are releasing few details about where they sent the boys they pulled from Mesabi Academy. Interviews with parents and court records show many were released into the custody of their parents. Others were transferred to treatment centers both within Minnesota and out of state.
Hennepin County, which had been Mesabi Academy's largest customer, doesn't have data available yet regarding the county's placement of children for May and June. A spokeswoman for the county said the information on placements won't be available until the end of August.
Sleeping in the gym while residents were fighting
The details from St. Louis County continue to paint a picture of Mesabi Academy as a facility where staff and youth were often at risk. And at least in two instances, one unnamed staff member neglected his duties to protect children, the county found.
The number of maltreatment findings nearly doubles the number of confirmed cases of child maltreatment at Mesabi Academy in the past decade. Previous St. Louis County documents say county investigators found a total of 5 substantiated cases of maltreatment between 2007 and 2015.
At least some of the information released by St. Louis County's Department of Children and Family Services involves allegations that arose from interviews with residents as counties pulled them out late this spring. Because the facility is located in St. Louis County, its protective services officials are responsible for investigating allegations of maltreatment.
St. Louis County released few specifics. Because state law allows investigators to shield specific information about minors, APM Reports requested summary data of each investigation.
In one of the four findings of maltreatment, "residents reported that this resident was punched by another resident, which was witnessed by a staff member; however, the staff member walked away and did not intervene," the document said. "Residents reported that this particular staff member has also observed physical altercations between other residents and did not intervene."
The same document said the staff member "was sleeping in the gym while residents were fighting with each other."
The county said the staff member, but not Mesabi Academy as a facility, was responsible for maltreatment in the case. The documents say Mesabi Academy fired the staffer "due to supervision issues."
County officials also found maltreatment in an incident at Mesabi Academy in February. Investigators said a staffer slammed a boy against the wall "resulting in a broken clavicle." Investigators also say another unknown staffer later put the same child in physical restraints even though the boy had a broken clavicle and was ordered to not be placed in takedowns or holds.
St. Louis County investigators also found that a boy was bruised after a staffer placed him in handcuffs that were too tight.
Citing privacy laws, St. Louis County did not make the names of the alleged victims or the staffers available.
Robert Martin, a spokesman for KidsPeace, released a statement saying the investigation found that KidsPeace followed proper procedure involving staff and children.
"The safety and well-being of our clients is our top priority, and we have established policies and procedures that staff members are required to follow to best ensure the well-being of the youth in our care," Martin said in a written statement. "Mesabi Academy maintained a policy that if a staff member is named in an allegation, he or she would be removed from direct care of clients while the investigation is conducted; if the allegation is proven to be accurate, the employee would be terminated. We believe the information provided by St. Louis County shows these procedures were followed by the management at Mesabi Academy."
There could be consequences of the findings, even though Mesabi Academy is no longer operating.
The staff members in question will not face criminal penalties for their actions but could be barred from working with children or vulnerable adults in the future. The staff members have a right to appeal the county's findings.
The county also closed 29 cases where investigators concluded no maltreatment occurred, but as many as six of those cases were forwarded to other agencies.
In four of those cases, the county said it couldn't investigate because the clients were over the age of 18. In one instance, a client alleged a staff person "slammed him to the ground and dragged him across the gym floor." He also alleged the staff member had his/her knee on the resident's neck." Those cases were forwarded along to Adult Protection Services in St. Louis County.
In two other instances, however, St. Louis County forwarded complaints to state agencies. After a complaint was made that two boys were engaged in sexual activity at school, the county forwarded the allegation to the Minnesota Department of Education because the incident occurred "during school hours." Josh Collins, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education, said privacy laws prevent his department from confirming or commenting on any maltreatment investigation involving a juvenile.
The county also forwarded a complaint to the Minnesota Department of Corrections for a possible licensing violation by the facility. The complaint says a client's mother "didn't receive his medication in a timely manner," didn't have a case manager for several months and was placed in a unit that involved dangerous juveniles. She also alleged that staff members thought her son's foot was broken during a restraint "and that her son was told not to report this." A spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, which licensed Mesabi Academy, said it wouldn't comment until St. Louis County completes its investigation.
It's not clear what impact any findings would have regarding the license Mesabi Academy maintained with the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Martin said KidsPeace voluntarily returned its license after the program closed in June.
Twenty-three alleged maltreatment cases are still being investigated, according to St. Louis County documents.
Boys charged with assault
Among the cases handled by the county sheriff's office, six involved charges against residents of the facility in connection with assaults on other boys or on staff members. In March, documents said, one boy's injuries were so severe that Mesabi Academy sent him to the hospital where he was "treated for substantial bodily injury."
Documents also show two youth escaped from the facility in February and others were caught planning an escape in March.
In another incident, the sheriff's department is recommending charges against a boy who "threatened to kill another client and two family members."
What's next for the vacant building?
The building that housed Mesabi Academy, the former Martin Hughes High School, is vacant. Buhl city officials and staff representing the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board are looking for another tenant to lease it.
A spokeswoman for the IRRRB, which loaned KidsPeace $1 million to help retrofit the building years ago, directed questions about the future of the building to officials in the city of Buhl and KidsPeace executives.
Buhl Mayor Shari Swanson did not return calls to discuss the future of the facility but said during an August city council meeting that the city is working with KidsPeace officials to find a new tenant.
"Everyone in town is curious. Our largest employer went out with very little notice. It was a tragic thing for our community and for all of the employees up there. It was a horrible thing and we want to see it up and running as soon as possible," she said.
Swanson also said during the meeting that city officials, IRRRB officials and KidsPeace held conference calls this month to discuss their options for the building.
"It's still in Mesabi Academy's ballpark so we're waiting to hear back from them," Swanson said. "It sounded like they were ready to start negotiating, maybe moving out of the building and have the city market it but they're kind of taken a step back from that idea. I don't know if they have gotten more interest from people who may want to use it or not."
The contract between Buhl and KidsPeace gives KidsPeace the right to buy the building for $175,000. The lease agreement also requires KidsPeace to pay an annual rent of $35,000.
Martin said the company continues to abide by the terms of the lease. He declined to comment on the company's plans for the