Scores of protesters holding signs reading "Community Not Cages" streamed into a park in downtown Winona, Minn., pumping their fists in the air and yelling, "No new jails!"
The focus of their anger: A plan to house up to eight youth at the county jail. Officials hoped it would end the practice of sending local children arrested in serious crimes to detention centers hundreds of miles away.
"There will be zero youth incarceration in our county for as long as I live — and hopefully for long after I'm gone," declared Tova Strange, 21, a student and one of the organizers of that July protest.
Winona County commissioners quietly abandoned the proposal.
The uproar in this southeastern Minnesota city reflects the growing clout of a national movement to end all forms of confinement for young people, and to replace incarceration with community-based rehabilitation programs.
In Minnesota, more than a dozen licensed facilities that once housed and cared for high-risk children have shut their doors over the past decade. Three of the state's biggest — Hennepin County Home School, Boys Totem Town in St. Paul and the Hills Youth and Family Services in Duluth — have abruptly closed since 2019. The number of beds in Minnesota's juvenile correctional facilities has shrunk by about 40% since 2015, state records show.
But the millions of dollars saved from closing juvenile detention centers has not been redirected into rigorous statewide rehabilitation programming that criminal justice advocates envisioned. Adolescents troubled by trauma and behavioral health problems who have committed violent crimes often bounce from one improvised placement to another. Many spend years on supervised probation or in short-term shelters without ever receiving sustained therapy, increasing the risk they pose to the public and themselves.
"Kids are ending up in prison or dead because we have nowhere to send them," said Christine Rickart, former program director of an emergency shelter for behaviorally troubled children in Hennepin County that closed last fall. "We talk about community resources but there is no plan when those are exhausted."
Anoka public defender Sarah Ellsworth likens the situation to when the state began closing large public mental hospitals in the 1970s and flung open the doors for institutionalized patients. The government assumed community programming would fill the gap. That never happened.
Minnesota may be making the same mistake with youth, she said, by shipping them back to the same dysfunctional environments, where their chances of success are greatly diminished.
"There are no resources in the community to support them — especially when you get outside of the metro," said Ellsworth, who applauds the effort to move away from traditional forms of detention. "[But] I don't think the average mom who's struggling with her 15-year-old knows where to turn."
Judges say they are running out of places to send youth who require the kind of intensive therapy not available through community-based programs. As a result, more than 1,800 Minnesota children have been shipped out of state for residential treatment over the past decade, to facilities as far away as Georgia, Missouri, Texas and Utah, state records show.
Deddtrease Edwards was only 14 when she was first sent to a residential facility for troubled youth in Iowa because of a lack of beds in Minnesota. Isolated from her family, Edwards struggled with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. At night, she began cutting herself with metal objects to relieve her emotional distress.
A decade later, the dark scars still crisscross both her arms.
"The emotional damage that was done will never heal," said Edwards, who now lives in Richfield and is a mother of three children. "Suddenly I was ripped away from everyone I knew and loved and sent far away … it was too much for me at that age."
'No other options out there'
No single government agency in Minnesota tracks where children are sent once they are found guilty of a crime.
Children who are considered too dangerous to return to their homes are consigned to an array of institutional settings — including detention centers, group homes and treatment centers — that are run by a patchwork of public and private agencies. All told, these facilities have the capacity to house up to 1,000 children. However, unlike in the adult prison system, information is scarce. State corrections officials said they do not know how many of these juvenile beds are in use on any given day, or what happens to youth once they are released back home.
But the pressure to find help for some of Minnesota's most troubled teens is being felt in all corners of the state.
Village Ranch in Annandale is one of the last residential facilities in the state that provides intensive therapy and classroom education for girls convicted of crimes. Young women can spend months sorting out their lives and the root causes of their behavior with trained counselors and psychologists.
The care doesn't end when they leave Village Ranch; children still struggling with behavioral health problems can access three months of outpatient therapy.
"No one is left to sink or swim here," said Angelisa Mays-Andrews, Village Ranch's program coordinator. "We elevate everyone."
Mays-Andrews, 32, has made it her life's mission to provide a sanctuary for troubled girls. One Sunday evening a month, she transforms Village Ranch into a healing spa. For several hours, the 16 teenagers can forget their troubles and the crimes that got them sent here, and instead focus on their physical and emotional well-being. They submerge their bare feet into small tubs of mineral-rich water, rub clay on their faces and giggle at each other in their bathrobes.
"You look beautiful, just like Lady Gaga!" shouted one of the teenage girls from across the room.
The shortage of treatment beds statewide means that Village Ranch is being pressured daily to take children who have committed violent crimes, from carjackings to shootings, which the non-secure facility was never equipped to handle.
The wait list to get into Village Ranch can stretch for three months or longer, with dozens of girls turned away each year. Many are kids of color from the Twin Cities metro area — the very girls that Mays-Andrews, who is Black, longs to help rehabilitate.
"It's really hard to say no, when you realize there are no other options out there," she said. "The girls we turn away are the ones who end up in faraway places like Iowa or Texas."
James O'Donnell is facing similar challenges as supervisor of the West Central Regional Juvenile Center, a correctional facility in Moorhead.
A decade ago, West Central rarely admitted youth from outside of the 10 counties it serves in western Minnesota, O'Donnell said. But as facilities have closed, judges and prosecutors across the state have turned to his facility as a "place of last resort" for children who are too dangerous to be sent back to their homes, he said.
Many have been found guilty of violent felonies and have exhausted their treatment options in the community. Probation officers can no longer handle them. O'Donnell and his staff have to turn away these children because they have psychiatric disorders that have gone untreated for years and their needs exceed the capabilities of West Central.
"It's scary and bewildering that we are allowing children to get to such a desperate point where even we can't help them," he said. "We're seeing kids who have been on a downward spiral for four or five years — kids who have shot someone or taken another person's life — and we're expected to perform miracles."
Detention centers emptied
The tide began to turn against youth confinement nearly three decades ago amid a surge in youth violence, both in Minnesota and nationally.
In a 1995 analysis, the state Office of the Legislative Auditor concluded that most of Minnesota's juvenile facilities were failing to rehabilitate the children detained there. In some cases, nine out of 10 committed new crimes as adults.
In Minnesota and elsewhere, Black youth were more likely to be incarcerated than whites —even for the same crimes. Several national studies confirmed that a teenager who was incarcerated was more likely to end up in prison as an adult, or on public assistance, than one who was not. Confinement also significantly increased a child's risk for mental health problems as adults, researchers found.
Detention centers — once a dumping ground even for truants and low-level shoplifters — slashed daily admission rates. In Hennepin and Ramsey, the state's two biggest counties, admissions to juvenile detention centers plunged by more than 80% between 2005 and 2020, records show.
State officials and youth justice advocates envisioned replacing detention with a continuum of community-based services. In 2005, state corrections officials launched an ambitious reform effort, known as the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, to expand programs such as youth mentoring, job training and family counseling.
But designing those programs — and paying for them — was left largely to each of Minnesota's 87 counties.
"All we were doing was not incarcerating the kids," said Judge Gary Bastian, who served multiple stints on the juvenile bench and now presides as a senior judge. "But we weren't giving them programs, so they were going out untreated."
A series of scandals at state-licensed correctional facilities further solidified public perception that the places were rampant with abuse. Mesabi Academy, a private treatment center on the Iron Range, shuttered in 2016 after an investigation found that staff concealed allegations of sexual assault and sanctioned violence, allowing boys as young as 12 to compete in a "fight club." At Boys Totem Town in St. Paul, a therapist was criminally charged for having sex with a 17-year-old patient she helped escape, then hide at her home.
So when Hennepin and Ramsey counties in 2016 moved forward with plans to develop a joint facility to treat juveniles that would expand programming and replace the Home School and Totem Town, 100 protesters clogged the public hearing in Richfield to denounce what they called "youth prisons."
One week later, county commissioners abandoned the project.
Once a model for youth rehabilitation
In its best years, the Hennepin County Home School was an oasis of stability for troubled youth, and it was often held up as a model for other juvenile correctional facilities across the country.
Judges sent children considered too dangerous to live in the community to this 145-acre campus on the western edge of the Twin Cities. Founded in 1909, the school was one of the first in the nation to combine group and individual therapy with a structured classroom environment. On weekends, there were horseback rides, canoe trips and camping excursions designed to build relationships and more-positive identities.
"It didn't matter what the child did; we did everything humanly possible to make them believe in themselves," said Marion Barber Jr., a former University of Minnesota football star who was an instructor at the school's girls program in the 1990s.
For decades, the facility operated more like a treatment center than a correctional facility. Each child was surrounded by a multidisciplinary team of teachers, social workers, therapists and psychologists who met weekly to chronicle a child's progress.
"It was a pearl on the prairie," said Gloria Morrow-Peterson, who worked as a psychiatric social worker at the school from 1989 to 1997. "We took children who were broken and traumatized, and turned them into thinking, empathetic beings."
Rashid Barkadle, a home health care worker from Minneapolis, said the institution likely saved his teenage son's life.
In his sophomore and junior years at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, his son Mubashir Barkadle was arrested four times for stealing cars and once for attempted robbery of a phone store. He was quickly released after each arrest because none of the offenses was serious enough to meet the county's standard for detention. Twice, a judge ordered him to wear an ankle monitor to track his movements. Both times, he clipped it off with a pair of scissors and vanished from home and school.
When a judge finally sentenced Mubashir to five months at Hennepin County Home School, he yelled an expletive at the judge.
But now, two years later, Mubashir refers to his time at the facility as "the best thing that ever happened" to him.
He was required to wake early, attend classes and keep a daily journal of his progress. A visiting instructor, who was Black, delivered weekly lectures about the legacy of systemic racism in America and the damaging effects of incarceration on communities of color. At night, Mubashir had hours of uninterrupted time to reflect on the lessons and his plans for the future.
"For the first time in my life, people were focused on what I wanted to do with my life, instead of what I had already done," he said. "It was liberating."
This fall, Mubashir began taking technology classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. He hopes to start his own mobile computer troubleshooting business and hire young people who are from impoverished backgrounds, like he is.
Chenaya Johnson, who attended Hennepin County Home School two decades ago, remembers the horseback riding lessons over wide-open pastures, and the gifts that staff handed out to foster children like her, who did not have relatives who visited on holidays.
The school's campus felt a world away from the abusive home in Minneapolis where Johnson had spent most of her early childhood. From Day 1, Johnson said, the school made her feel "like a human being." They told her it was understandable that she was angry, given her history of family trauma, and taught her methods for coping with her anger, she said.
"Not only did they create a nurturing environment, they gave us the time and the support to work things out," said Johnson, now a human resources coordinator and mother of three. "Honestly, were it not for my time there, I'm certain that I would have ended up in prison."
But the population of the school plunged as judges and probation officers shifted toward community-based programs. By 2020, the average daily resident population at the school, which once housed up to 140 children, had dwindled to just 20 kids. Most of the school's seven cottages sat vacant. The operating cost to taxpayers had soared to nearly $500,000 annually per child, according to county estimates.
"It just didn't make any economic sense, from a long-term perspective, to keep the facility open," said Catherine Johnson, director of Hennepin County's Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Still, the decision to close the school was made early this year without a public hearing — and came as a shock to some local judges and youth advocates.
Some, like longtime Hennepin County juvenile Judge Tanya Bransford, argue that the home school was the only option available in the county for sending kids who were involved in shootings or other violent crimes and were not safe to return home.
In Bransford's view, the county behaved irresponsibly — and possibly put the public's safety at risk — by moving to close the school without developing other secure treatment options.
"I'm not saying it was perfect," said Bransford, who's spent 15 years on the juvenile bench. "But to say that no young person should be placed in any out-of-home placement at any time is unrealistic."
The large net of probation
Instead of treatment centers, the most common destination for Minnesota's high-risk youth is juvenile probation. Frequently underfunded and overburdened, county probation departments supervise more than 3,500 children statewide.
Jane Schmid, a youth probation agent from Brown County and president of the Minnesota Corrections Association, made her way toward the cluttered backyard of a home in Sleepy Eye in south-central Minnesota.
She was scanning the outside of the home for empty vodka bottles, spent bullet casings or any other signs of problems at the home of her client — a 17-year-old with a troubled past. Jacob had been on probation almost continuously since he was 10 years old for a rash of crimes, including three car thefts in which he led police on high-speed chases. His mother refused to take him back after he escaped from a youth shelter and was found days later in a stolen vehicle.
Schmid estimated that she's had "easily more than 300" one-on-one meetings with Jacob over seven years. "It's gotten to the point where I am the most stable adult presence in this boy's life," said Schmid as she approached the home. "And it shouldn't be that way."
It was a sweltering summer afternoon, and Jacob was waiting for Schmid at a shaded picnic table. For the next hour Schmid peppered Jacob with a series of no-nonsense questions. How was his new job? Why had he missed a work shift? Was he taking his anti-anxiety medications? And how was he getting along with his father?
"In the past my dad wasn't fully there, but he's there for me now — so I can really talk to him," Jacob said.
Schmid flashed a broad smile and replied excitedly, "Family is so huge, right? I mean, friends are great, but I don't want you to go back to hanging with people who aren't doing anything productive."
Jacob nodded but said nothing.
As the conversation ended, Schmid asked Jacob to hand over the clunky ankle bracelet that had been monitoring his movements for the past year — a milestone in Jacob's yearslong effort to make it off probation.
"This feels like a new chapter," Jacob said proudly as he handed over the device.
Three months later, Jacob's life unraveled.
Schmid began receiving text messages that he had run away from home again and was couch-hopping with friends. Then shortly after Jacob's 18th birthday, Schmid got a 3 a.m. text message from his mother saying police had picked him up with methamphetamines. When the two met at the Brown County probation office, Schmid was alarmed by his appearance: the disheveled clothes hanging off his gaunt body and open sores consistent with drug use.
But now that he was 18, Jacob would soon move beyond her jurisdiction. He was now entangled in the less-forgiving adult criminal system. "It's gut-wrenching," she said, "just knowing that he had come so far only to fall off that cliff."
To Schmid, Jacob's story is a cautionary one about the limits of community-based programming. Jacob spent seven years bouncing from short-term stays in youth shelters and treatment centers. But each time he returned home, he reconnected with a group of friends and would reoffend. Apart from prodding and cajoling, Schmid said she had few levers to keep him out of trouble.
"It's possible this tragedy could have been avoided had [Jacob] got sustained, collaborative treatment when he first offended" at age 10, she said. "Instead, he's maxed out all the community resources and it got him nowhere."
About this series
Juvenile Injustice is a Star Tribune special report examining how Minnesota's juvenile justice system is failing young people, families and victims of violence.
Part 1: Broken promises, shattered lives
The consequences can be deadly when the juvenile system fails to intervene in the lives of Minnesota's most troubled kids.
Part 2: Justice 'by ZIP code, not fairness'
Minnesota has no uniform standards for who can join diversion programs or what they offer.
Part 3: Nowhere to go for most troubled youth
As youth detention centers close, Minnesota runs out of places to rehabilitate kids who commit serious crimes.
Part 4: 'Back door to prison' steals precious time
Minor offenses often funnel Minnesota youth from extended probation into adult lockup.
Part 5: Laying down the law for youths
Minnesota's juvenile justice system is broken. Colorado shows how it could be better.
How we reported these stories
Star Tribune journalists spent more than a year examining hundreds of juvenile court cases dating back to 2018 that involved violent crimes, including shootings, aggravated robberies and homicides. Many of the young people charged in those incidents had committed previous offenses, leading us to ask whether Minnesota's juvenile justice system was fulfilling its core promise of rehabilitating youth while protecting public safety.
Our review of court records was limited in scope because most juvenile case records are confidential. In Minnesota, juvenile crime records are only accessible to the public if the offense is a felony and the youth was at least 16. In cases where a court document was not accessible, we relied on interviews and documents obtained from relatives, victims and public-records requests from local law enforcement agencies.
Gathering statewide data about the effectiveness of rehabilitation efforts is difficult because the youth justice system in Minnesota is highly fragmented. The programs and the process of redirecting youth from formal judicial processing (known as "diversion") vary widely between counties. To better understand how these programs work, we created a survey that was sent to all 87 counties. We received responses from programs in more than half of those counties, representing 85% of the state's juvenile population.
Many young people do not re-offend. The juvenile courts shield their identities because a public record of their crime could be a barrier to attending college, obtaining a job or renting an apartment. Through the course of this series, we identify minors only by a first name — and only when parents have specifically consented. Those publicly identified after their deaths are the lone exception to this rule.
Reporting: Liz Sawyer, Chris Serres, MaryJo Webster and Maya Miller
Photography and video: Jerry Holt, Mark Vancleave, Cheryl Diaz Meyer, Christine Nguyen and Deb Pastner
Design and development: Bryan Brussee, Josh Penrod, Jamie Hutt, Josh Jones and Dave Braunger
Graphics: C.J. Sinner, Eddie Thomas, MaryJo Webster and Josh Jones
Editing: Eric Wieffering and Abby Simons
Copy editing: Catherine Preus and Amy Kuebelbeck
Audience engagement: Anna Ta, Nancy Yang, Ash Miller and Tom Horgen
Share your story
The Star Tribune is continuing to report on Minnesota's juvenile justice system. We would like to hear from judges, prosecutors, young people who have been involved in the juvenile justice system and their parents, and victims of crimes. Our reporters will not share your information without your explicit permission. You can reach Liz Sawyer at 612-673-4648 or at email@example.com, or via the encrypted messaging app Signal at 612-916-1443. Chris Serres is at 612-673-4308 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Signal at 612-910-7134.