Rehab the goal of new juvenile center

The opening of the county's new Youth Services Center a month from today will signal more than a long overdue upgrade in facilities; it will represent a break from a “warehousing” approach to juvenile crime, according to officials.

The switch to a more rehabilitation-based treatment — being pursued by many counties in the state to varying degrees — is evident in the construction of San Mateo County's new 180-bed Juvenile Hall, 30-bed Girl's Camp and 24-bed Receiving Home, comprising the center. Built with a circular design intended to prevent escape, and with less fencing, the new Juvenile Hall building surrounds a central courtyard with an all-weather turf field and recycled rubber athletic track. Single-occupancy “suites” inside are part of a tiered system meant to provide those with the best behavior more freedom and perks.

“All the kids are asking when they get to move in,” Greg Huntington, a group supervisor who works directly with wards, said. So inviting is the new Youth Services Center, with its 20-foot-high ceilings, rivers of sunlight, dorms with individual toilets and desks and terrific vistas of the Crystal Springs Reservoir, officials are worried some kids may act up in order to stay.

With just 17 more beds than the old facility, the majority of the 276,000-square-foot center was built to accommodate family counseling, education and social services based on individual juvenile assessments, officials said.

And while some may remember that similar approaches came to prominence in the 1970s, sometimes with poor or uncertain results, science has turned the tide, according to Norma Suzuki, executive director for the Chief Probation Officers of California. “I was there in the ’70s and I can tell you we are in a very good position today to have science supporting what our gut was telling us back then,” Suzuki said.

Hoping that kids will respond to opportunities for improved privacy and increased freedom, some single-occupancy dorms will be reserved, when possible, for those wards with the best behavior, Regina Wilson-Henry, director of institutions services, said. More freedoms, such as being allowed to walk unescorted around parts of the campus, will also be afforded the trustworthiest, Wilson-Henry said.

“What we wanted to do was have different levels of comfort and security commensurate with the kids’ behavior,” chief juvenile probation officer Loren Buddress said.

One major improvement of the new Youth Services Center is the doubling, sometimes tripling, of space available for classes in everything from narcotics addiction to Bible study and anger management, Buddress said. That will mean increased individual and small group counseling, shown to have the best results, Buddress said.

As the most expensive construction project in the county's 150-year history at $148 million, the new center will also boast an expanded medical clinic, including a much-needed dental facility. “About 80 percent of the kids have serious dental problems,” Buddress said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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