When the Youth Crisis Center in Casper opens the doors on its new facility this fall, their mission of giving kids in trouble a safe place to stay will get a lot easier.
“When I was in law enforcement we’d take kids into custody, put them in juvenile cells in the city jail and parents would come down and pick them up,“ recalls 30-year Casper Police Department veteran, Jack Watters.
Watters is now retired and a current employee of the Youth Crisis Center.
He worked as a cop when the city of Casper had no other options.
“Kids who were in conflict with their parents, who now come to the Youth Crisis Center, sometimes went to the jail,” said Watters.
Former Crisis Center Executive Director, Dick Dresang recalls that about the time the Youth Crisis Center opened its doors, back in the mid-1980s, lawmakers in Washington were placing new restrictions on law enforcement. Minors could no longer be put into adult jails for a status offense.
A status offense might be something like running away from home or being in possession of alcohol or cigarettes.
With the restriction in place, police officers sometimes found themselves sitting-in for a missing parent or guardian. “We would sit with kids until someone would take them, a grandma or an aunt. We weren’t set up as babysitters,” remembers Watters.
The YCC’s new 13,000 square foot facility, currently under construction in the 1500 block of east 12th street, is specifically designed to meet that special need. The new facility will combine both short-term crisis center services and long-term group homes for boys and girls.
Current YCC Executive Director, Stacy Nelson, says there’s a wide range of reasons why a child might find themself at YCC.
“Sometimes we’re trying to track down parents. For instance, law enforcement may bring a child in for curfew violation and we can’t find their parents. We’ve had kids who decided to call the police and ask to be brought here. It may be an issue of a family fight going on and they don’t want to be there. There have been times when kids get home from whatever they’re doing and they can’t find their parents. There was a situation on one occasion where a kid came in because he had been gone for a few days, went home, and his parents had moved.”
“A while back we had a little boy who came in at 4:30 in the morning and we discovered it was his birthday. He was turning six. The police brought him in because he had been taken into protective custody. We went out and got him a cake and did a quick little birthday party for him so he’d have something positive,” remembers Nelson.
Nelson is quick to point out that the services they provide are available and utilized by all kinds of families.
“It’s for the whole community. Tons of ‘normal’ families use us. There is that stigma and thought that it’s only for lower income or homeless kids.”
She says it’s easy for parents to think that if they use the crisis center they must be bad parents. “But that’s not it. Sometimes you need to just step back to give yourself time to make a better decision or ask for help from an outside person.”
“Maybe the child needs a time out,” said Assistant District Attorney, Brian Christensen. “If they are blowing up at the home and decide to go there… They can go to the crisis center and get a meal and a shower and try to work things out with the parent.”
In addition to short-term crisis response, the YCC offers longer stays of around three to six months in their group homes. YCC has had two group homes maintained in separate facilities around town.
A long-term stay might be necessary for a child who’s can’t stay at home. They may need housing while they work on reunification with their family. The group home can serve as a transitional option following release from a residential facility.
YCC’s group homes generally serve children 10 to 18 years old. However, exceptions have occurred.
“Several years ago, I had one kid who turned 18 in the middle of his senior year,” explained Nelson. “We advocated for him to stay with us at the group home because he said, ‘Stacy I’m not going to graduate if I have to go back home. I know I’m not going to have the support. Can I just stay here?’ And so we went to court and the whole team agreed and the judge allowed him to stay until he graduated in May. It’s not very often that we have kids wanting to stay past their 18th birthday in a group home.”
Years ago when Natrona County built a new adult jail, they vacated the 5th floor of the Hall of Justice. That space became the Juvenile Detention Center for a number of years. The YCC, in turn, was able to take in youth whose offense did not warrant time in JDC.
“We are not a jail and we don’t want to be used as a jail. If a kid has made a silly mistake or it’s a status offense this is a better place for them,” said Watters.
The county has since constructed and now operates a new juvenile detention center (JDC).
Christensen points out a trend toward keeping kids in the community and out of the JDC, which has put greater pressure on the YCC to take them in. When it is completed, the new YCC building will help them meet that demand.
“It also serves as a place for a child to stay if they got into district juvenile court and home was not appropriate because of lack of supervision or the potential for abuse and neglect if they were in the home,” said Christensen.
“And more and more we’re doing a single point of entry and all charges from all the agencies come to the county district attorney’s office. Over 50 percent of our kids now days are not going to court, they go into programs.
“The crisis center is a very important part of that continuum, to keep our children successful,” said Christensen.
As a former policeman, Watters, brings knowledge of the court system to his job at the YCC.
“One of the things they’ve asked me to do is go to court with the kids.
I have a background in the court system and spent about seven years training volunteers to be Court Appointed Special Advocates for the CASA program.”
Glenn Pease has worked with the crisis center for 24 years and notes a lot of improvement in the organization’s teamwork.
The upcoming move into a new building- all under one roof- may enhanced the teamwork further.
“One of the things that has improved is that we network and we are able to use more of a team approach,” said Pease.
“There is a multi-disciplinary team that’s made up of ourselves, an attorney, whether it be a guardian ad litem or a public defender, also a Department of Family Services social worker, a probation officer, the district attorney, the therapist, and the parent of course and the child,” explains Pease.
The work of YCC is intertwined with that of a number of community support programs including the Casper Police Department’s Weed and Seed Program, The Youth Diversion Program, Mercer Family Resource Center, the Central Wyoming Counseling Center, and the Natrona County School District’s Student Advocates. And the list could go on.
It’s the people who make it possible
Besides helping kids walk through the court system, Watters adds he also just likes to be with them.
“We’ve got a fine crew of people that if they didn’t care about kids they wouldn’t be here.”