MN Mesabi Academy 64 Abuse Allegations Not Responded To (instead, staff transferred & a code of silence solved nothing)

May 11, 2016 in CASA, Crime and Courts, Foster Care, Guardian ad-Litem, Health and Mental Health, Invisible Children, Politics and Funding, Public Policy, Resources, The States by Mike Tikkanen

KoalaMy experience as a CASA guardian ad-Litem with privately held correctional facilities for MN boys leads me to believe this APM report (this link and below) on Kids Peace Mesabi Academy in Buhl MN.

On two occasions, my case child was sent to facilities that drove him to dangerous if not life threatening experiences.  The first time he (lets call him Al) was punished by a low level staffer and forced to stand outside on a ten degree night wearing only his T shirt and shorts.  The boy chose to leave and walked thirty five miles to a friends house and almost froze to death.

Read the Mesabi Academy story below;

All Adults Are The Protectors of All Children

Anyone working with Al would have read his file and known his behavioral problems were being treated with powerful psychotropic medications and that he had been suicidal.  35 miles in a T shirt on a 10 degree night in MN.  He was 14 years old and had been sexually abused, beaten and starved for 4 years before he entered child protective services when he was seven years old.  The second event was triggered by his suicidal behaviors when there were no Minneapolis area emergency psych beds for him and he had to be flown (I accompanied him) to a northern MN group home that claimed to provide safety for suicidal boys.

I spoke with the PHD director of the facility and shared my concerns about the religious core of the organization and was assured that their staff were trained in sound mental health practice and that I could rest assured that Al’s sexuality and lack of religion would not play a role in his treatment.

They lied, it did.  For six weeks Al was constrained physically and repeatedly sermonized and admonished for lifestyle and lack of spiritual acceptance.  The amount of Prozac, Ritalin and other psychotropic medications forced on this boy solved nothing.  Al never had a chance to live a normal life.  He has AIDS today.  He has always been a state ward and I expect he will always be a state ward.

I do not blame the workers for their lack of understanding and training in these cases.  They are in over their heads with mental health issues and often violent behaviors from traumatized children in their care.

I blame the lack of understanding, accountability, reporting and public concern for abused children.  Tied to a bed, left alone for days at a time without food or water and beaten & sexually abused when the care giver returned (from 4 to 7 years of age and then tortured by a cold hard system.

Read the Mesabi Academy story below;

All Adults Are The Protectors of All Children

Internal investigations by this privately held facility were not made public and were not made available to the County for investigation.

No local (St Louis County) children were sent there in over ten years.  Why was that?

Mesabi did not provide required annual reports and dragged their feet providing requested information for the investigation by the County (and the County could not enforce their own demands).

Mesabi Academy threatened the County with legal action if it removed the hosting contract and the County backed down.

This facility had twenty times more complaints than any other MN juvenile residential treatment center;

he seven largest juvenile residential treatment centers licensed by the Minnesota Department of Corrections

FACILITY BEDS COMPLAINTS OPERATOR
MN Correctional Facility, Red Wing 189 2 State
Hennepin Co. Home School, Minnetonka 184 0 County
Mesabi Academy, Buhl 123 64 Private non-profit
Woodland Hills Residential Treatment Center, Duluth 84 3 Private non-profit
Northwestern MN Juvenile Facility, Bemidji 65 3 County
Boys Totem Town, St. Paul 56 1 County
Anoka County Juvenile Center, Lino Lakes 50 0 County

Unlike some other similar facilities, Mesabi Academy has both secure and non-secure living quarters and it takes young delinquents sent by courts as well as those referred by county child protective services agencies. It has generated far more complaints by parents, residents, staff and others than any other comparable facility in the state. Complaints can involve a variety of concerns about care, treatment, the staff or the facility itself. Sources: Minnesota’s departments of Human Services, Corrections, 2009-2016

 

tnessed; sexual abuse by staff alleged by boys as young as 12, and their own fear that young, violent predators sent to Mesabi by the courts would attack them and each other.

“It’s not a safe situation for those kids,” she said.

Those allegations resulted in the investigation the county closed last week.

Investigator pulled off case

On Nov. 5, Frazier drove to Buhl to begin to investigate, according to his expense reports. Typical for any such investigation, Frazier requested a list of all of the residents at Mesabi Academy and a list of employees.

But Mesabi Academy leaders objected to Frazier’s involvement in the case, according to a St. Louis County official with knowledge of the situation who agreed to speak only without being identified.

Frazier is the president of Local 66 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Another branch of the union, AFSCME Council 65, failed in its attempts to organize Mesabi Academy employees in May. The union lost the effort by 13 votes but filed an unfair labor practices complaint against Mesabi Academy.

On Oct. 30, the company and the union agreed to set aside the election and have another vote, which has not been held yet.

Ann Busche
Ann Busche, director of Public Health and Human Services for St. Louis County, told officials in other counties of “health and safety concerns” about Mesabi Academy. Derek Montgomery for APM Reports

Despite calling Frazier a “great” child protection investigator, Ann Busche, the director of Public Health and Human Services for St. Louis County, took him off the case. “We didn’t want any negative perceptions to hamper the investigation,” she said.

Frazier declined comment when asked whether he was removed from the case because of his union involvement.

It took Mesabi Academy three weeks to deliver the lists of residents and employees to investigators. Busche, who retired last month, called the three-week response time to supply basic information “concerning.”

KidsPeace threatens to sue county

As the investigation proceeded, Busche considered a serious change. (2)

In December, she told other counties that St. Louis County intended to pull out of its lead county contract with Mesabi Academy in part because of “health and safety concerns” at the facility. The contract outlines the age, IQ and other criteria for boys to be housed at Mesabi Academy, and the daily price for counties to send them there.

Having a lead contract with one county is a critical part of doing business for Mesabi Academy. It stands as an agreement with all participating Minnesota counties, allowing them to easily send kids there without negotiating separate agreements.

   

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On Dec. 10, Busche sent an email (3) to 20 Minnesota counties and one Native American tribe that placed boys in Mesabi Academy. She said St. Louis County’s contract with Mesabi Academy would be ending.

Officials with four counties — Ramsey, Wright, Itasca and Isanti — quickly responded, asking Busche whether there were problems with Mesabi. She told them that St. Louis County was ending its contract because the county used other facilities when it needed to find places for boys in trouble.

In fact, the county has renewed its contract annually for years, even though judges and social services workers in St. Louis County have sent only a few boys there in recent years.

In messages to officials in Wright and Ramsey counties, Busche added a critical detail. “We do have an open investigation that is raising health and safety concerns,” Busche wrote in an email to Ramsey County Contract Manager Sue Illg. “No determination has been made and the investigation is ongoing. The facility is cooperating with us.”

The state law governing lead county contracts requires county officials to disclose such concerns to other counties. But in follow-up messages to Itasca and Isanti counties a few days later, Busche didn’t disclose the concerns over health and safety. The only reason she cited in those emails was that St. Louis County didn’t send many kids to Mesabi and saw no benefit from holding the contract.

There was another reason for her failure to include that information: KidsPeace had threatened St. Louis County with a lawsuit claiming defamation and a violation of state data practices law, said the St. Louis County official who agreed to speak only without being named. Busche declined comment on the litigation threat.

But she still wanted out and hoped that another county, like Hennepin or Ramsey, would be willing to take over the contract. In fact, Paul Jacobson, Mesabi’s executive director, contacted Hennepin County to see if it would be willing to take over as lead county. (4) Hennepin is the only Minnesota county with its own contract with Mesabi Academy.

On Jan. 5, Busche was so certain St. Louis County was ending the contract that she sent an email to APM Reports confirming the decision.

Rukavina intervenes

An influential county commissioner had other ideas, though.

Tom Rukavina, a former state legislator, was one of the architects of the deal to bring Mesabi Academy to Minnesota 18 years ago. He wanted Busche’s decision reversed.

In a public commissioners’ meeting in Duluth the day of Busche’s email to APM Reports, Rukavina expressed concerns about her decision. He was worried about jobs, he said, after getting a phone call from an unnamed Mesabi Academy administrator.

“We don’t need the Iron Range to lose another 126 jobs,” he said, referring to the number of jobs at Mesabi Academy and the economic risk to the Iron Range. “If St. Louis County doesn’t continue as the host county … it might screw everything up.”

Commissioner Steve Raukar seemed to know about the investigation, noting that there were a “number of sensitive or personnel issues” at Mesabi and that he believed the state was involved. Rukavina asked that Busche and other commissioners from the Iron Range, including Raukar, meet privately to resolve the issue. They met that day.

The next day, Jan. 6, Busche abruptly changed her mind. She would continue the contract (5), the result of political “pushback” from Rukavina, according to the St. Louis County official, and because no other county wanted the contract.

In an interview, Busche said she felt no pressure to reverse her decision. “It’s clear that this had gotten more complicated and more political, but it was ultimately my decision to renew the host county contract,” she said.

Busche said she no longer has health and safety concerns with Mesabi Academy. And she said she didn’t have those worries when she decided to continue the lead county contract in January despite the open investigation into the 20 maltreatment allegations. She said in April the facility has been fully cooperative with St. Louis County investigators.

Tom Rukavina
Tom Rukavina Derek Montgomery for APM Reports

Mesabi Academy has recently increased the number of incidents it is reporting to Busche’s office, a tally of documents received by the county shows. Since the beginning of the year, county Child Protection has already received at least seven such reports. Most were deemed too minor to warrant a formal investigation. One investigation remains active.

Rukavina did not return calls for comment on his involvement in the contract dispute. When asked about Mesabi Academy in January, he said he knew there was an issue involving the county being a fiscal agent but denied knowing much about the issue.

“Don’t know ’em from Adam,” Rukavina said.

Rukavina has been a backer of Mesabi Academy since its inception. In 1998, he and other IRRRB board members voted to authorize $1 million in loans to fund it.

Parents not told

Not only did Mesabi Academy not report the three sex abuse allegations to the county, at least two guardians for three boys allegedly involved said they were not told by the county about any investigation, a step required by law. Busche said she couldn’t comment on specific cases but said there are times when the county, not a parent, is the official guardian. That would mean it, not a parent, must be informed of such an inquiry.

“I did stuff with that staff but I’m not telling no cop.”

15-year-old Mesabi Academy resident to his mother

One boy’s mother, who shares custody of the boy, learned about the investigation when she saw on the visitor’s log at a juvenile detention center in another county that a sheriff’s deputy and a social worker were visiting her son. (The boy had been sent there on a probation violation.) APM Reports is not identifying the boy or his mother because of the sex abuse allegation.

In a letter (6) on Feb. 22, Busche told the boy’s grandmother, who shares custody, that investigators had recently received a report that her grandson “may have been sexually abused by having sexually contact [sic] with Mesabi Academy KidsPeace staff.” The letter said the county ended the investigation because the alleged offender “denied any sexual contact” with the boy and the boy denied having any sexual contact with the staffer.

Furious, the boy’s mother appealed the decision and later was told the case had been reopened. She told investigators that her son had told her he had been abused but didn’t tell investigators initially because he was afraid.

On March 18, the mother gave APM Reports a recording of a phone call with her son. On the recording, the 15-year-old boy says that he “did stuff with that staff but I’m not telling no cop.” In another phone call earlier that week, he urged her not to pursue an appeal, and told her he didn’t see what allegedly happened to him at Mesabi as a big deal. “I did a year and a month in there,” he told her. “There’s no problem with having sex with a staff.”

APM Reports requested an interview with the boy. The request was denied by the head of the juvenile facility where the boy was living because he didn’t have approval from the boy’s county probation officer.

The boy’s mother said the probation officer and the St. Louis County worker investigating the case discouraged her from talking to the media because it could compromise the investigation.

Another boy who allegedly told Caroline Mattson about sex abuse denied to APM Reports any inappropriate sexual contact with the staffer at Mesabi. APM Reports has been unable to interview the third boy, who now lives in another state.

Mattson wouldn’t divulge the names of the boys, but APM Reports traced them through court documents, social media and interviews with former residents.

The chief licensor of Mesabi Academy, the Minnesota Department of Corrections, issued a statement late Friday saying it had been informed by St. Louis County of the investigation being closed.

“We will review their report and recommendations and take any licensing action as appropriate,” the department said.

In January, Deputy Commissioner Ron Solheid of the Minnesota Department of Corrections told APM Reports that juvenile facilities should report allegations of abuse to authorities.

“We would have grave concerns with [not reporting] because that does need to get to child protection,” Solheid said. “That’s not for them to determine.”

Busche said she’d like to see the process for investigating child maltreatment changed. She said it would be better for the state Department of Corrections, not counties, to take the lead on investigations.

Buhl, Minn., amid the ore pits of the Iron Range.
Buhl, Minn., home to Mesabi Academy, is set amid the ore pits of the Iron Range. Jennifer Simonson for APM Reports

More complaints than other facilities

A review of data showed the Minnesota Department of Corrections received 64 complaints about Mesabi Academy between Jan. 1, 2009, and March 14, 2016. The complaints include allegations of staffers assaulting clients, children having sex and boys exposing themselves to other children and staff. The information does not make clear how every individual complaint was resolved. The number of complaints at Mesabi Academy is substantially more than at any other juvenile facility licensed by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, even those with greater capacity.

Two employees and a volunteer at Mesabi Academy have been charged in the past with criminal sexual conduct with a minor.

“We are confident that we have followed all applicable laws, and have acted appropriately.”

KidsPeace statement

The most recent case came in 2012. An employee named Mary Loumanen pleaded guilty to third-degree criminal sexual conduct after being accused of performing oral sex on a 16-year-old.

Mattson has been on medical leave from KidsPeace since October. She says she injured her hand after being attacked by a boy in the facility.

KidsPeace notified her last month that she would no longer be considered an employee after April 21 because her benefits had run out. She said a worker’s compensation judge ruled April 22 that KidsPeace is required to pay benefits to her as a result of lost work and her injuries.

Despite the tumult, Mattson said she’s disappointed she can’t return to work at Mesabi Academy. She said she’ll miss the boys she was hired to help.

The mother whose son told her he’d had sex with the staff member was disappointed with the county’s decision to close the investigation.

“I think it’s bogus,” the mother said. “Now this lady is going to get away with everything. Now she gets to work with kids again if she wants, because it’ll be taken off her record … Who’s the next kid she hurts?”

Deena Winter, Will Craft and Emily Haavik contributed to this report.

APM Reports began its work in November 2015. It is a new national investigative journalism and documentary group that will report on a broad range of important topics. Its website, apmreports.org, will launch soon. Follow on Twitter and Facebook.