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Juvenile detention officials see growing medical, mental needs among kids

Lt. Larry Ahles said even though the Grand Forks Juvenile Detention Center is hiring staff, the growing medical and mental health needs of detainees are making the job more demanding than ever. In the 20 years he has worked at the jail, he has ne...

Bridgie Hansen, Juvenile Administrator Training Director, shows one of the cells at the center where juvenile detainees are held. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald


Lt. Larry Ahles said even though the Grand Forks Juvenile Detention Center is hiring staff, the growing medical and mental health needs of detainees are making the job more demanding than ever.

In the 20 years he has worked at the jail, he has never been busier than he is now because the center is seeing an increase in the number of those who need medication and psychological care.

“It’s not how many more kids, as it is the intensity of the kids we’re receiving,” Director Bridgie Hansen said.

And referring to these kids as “intense” is an understatement, with the center seeing four times as many suicide attempts as there are in the outside world.


Ahles said that after he recently assured a young, suicidal detainee that he still had things to live for and could do something with his life, the boy tried to kill himself.

“I was physically holding him away from what he was trying to do, and then he admitted he raped his stepsister and that I shouldn’t care about him,” Ahles said. “To leave that here, it’s hard. I see him as a little kid, but he’s also a sexual predator.”

The detention center holds detainees who have been charged with crimes and the occasional minor trying to cross the Canadian border illegally.

But no one at the center could pinpoint why so many are coming to Grand Forks with those needs, so instead of focusing on the problem, they are working toward solutions.

Seeking solutions

Some solutions, including the new employees, lie in giving detainees more time in common areas where they can learn and play games instead of sitting alone in their starkly bare, “suicide-proof” rooms.

Ahles has been so popular among detainees that he has even had former detainees come back and knock on the detention center door to talk to him.

“We don’t just put them in a room and lock them in,” he said. “We go in and sit down. We talk, play a game of Yahtzee, exercise with them. We’re hearing what they’re saying.”


One room in the center has even been turned into an educational corner where detainees can go to study.

“Some of them come in here not knowing how to read,” Hansen said.

But the center continues to see more kids with psychological needs.

Ahles said that nobody was hurt, but there have been three physical assaults on workers at the center in the last three months by those with mental health issues, which is more than he’s ever seen in such a short time before.

“You can have five really well-behaved kids and it seems like the place is empty or three really bad cases that makes it seem like there are 10 in here,” he said.

And with two officers on duty per shift, it’s not safe to be stretched that thin. For example, a worker needs to be present at prisoner intake but another is also needed in the common area to escort detainees to their rooms.

Recently, the center has also been taking in kids from centers that are closed for renovation in surrounding counties, but Ahles said they were busy before those transferred detainees started coming to Grand Forks.

“It’s really more paperwork stuff that we have to do, and counting meds,” he said. “It’s just a lot more things that take more time.”


And while most stay for less than a week, the Class I center has the ability to hold detainees for a year and some have stayed for about eight months before being transferred to a long-term facility, taken home, or sent to some sort of counseling center.

But that’s not the problem.

The problem lies in the large number of kids who are “on meds, suicidal, hearing voices” and have had drug and alcohol problems, Hansen said.

Ahles said dealing with this new wave of detainees can be extremely difficult and cited one incident where a young boy told him he had been sexually abused.

“You know what he said when I asked him why he was telling me now? He said, ‘Nobody ever asked,’” Ahles said.

‘A warzone’

For the past two years, the center has had about 150 children ages 8 to 18 come through annually and usually has about five in custody on any given day.

But that can change on a moment’s notice, as last week the center had nine detainees inside.


“You think it’s crazy, but it’s like a warzone,” Hansen said.

Including the three new employees who start in June, the center employs 10 full-time and 12 part-time employees. The part-time workers are usually students from UND, and everybody pitches in to help with the influx of paperwork involved in getting the detainees their medication and counseling.

And through all of it, the workers do their best to provide as much one-on-one interaction with the children as possible.

“It’s dehumanizing to have somebody search you and to be arrested and that anxiety of coming in here,” Hansen said. “We try to take that edge off.”

And they’re doing such a good job that some kids don’t want to go home.

“We do believe they can make better choices,” Hansen said. “We try to instill that hope.”



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