County official offers assurance of kids’ safety at Denney

They are Snohomish County’s most at-risk kids. They have been accused of — or are serving time for — shoplifting, drug use, assault, burglary, tagging or other criminal behavior. Or they have violated probation, or skipped class so often a school district has filed a truancy petition.

Inevitably, they are locked up at Denney Juvenile Justice Center. The county’s juvenile detention facility in Everett can house up to 120 kids under age 18, both boys and girls.

On Friday, Herald readers learned details of a long, costly investigation into worker allegations of harassment and other improprieties at Denney. Accusations were aimed at some correctional officers, among them Ron Gipson.

The investigation found that Gipson, also an Everett City Council member, and other Denney staff violated workplace rules with their sexually suggestive and racially inappropriate comments.

Noah Haglund’s article mentioned kids. It said that Marilyn Finsen, Snohomish County Superior Court’s administrator since January, “doesn’t believe that safety or the well-being of any young detainees has been compromised.”

The most important people at Denney are children and teenagers in trouble. Denney exists both for the security of our community and of the young people held there. This column is meant to answer questions that families may have, not to excuse detainees’ behavior.

Parents of kids involved in the juvenile justice system have plenty to worry about without added fears related to the Denney investigation. One father called The Herald after Friday’s article was published to ask about detainee strip searches.

In a place where people in authority wield power over kids in detention, it’s not a big leap to imagine that a highly inappropriate work atmosphere could bleed over into the primary duty. Did any corrections officers ever aim inappropriate comments or actions at a kid?

Shane Nybo, Snohomish County Superior Court’s assistant administrator, offered assurance about practices and security at Denney. Nybo was Denney’s assistant administrator when the issues covered in the investigation were revealed.

“That was one of the first questions we were asking when this investigation came to light — any allegations of inappropriate behavior with the juveniles? Throughout working with investigators in the past year, there was no indication of that, and that was reassuring,” Nybo said Tuesday.

He stressed that kids at Denney get information about how to report a complaint. “If they’re experiencing any inappropriate behavior, peer to peer or with staff, there’s a mechanism for them to report and have that investigated,” he said. “We do get occasional complaints peer to peer. They know each other in the community and have unresolved issues.”

Detainees are screened based on age and offenses. Nybo said those perceived to be predatory are kept separate from more vulnerable kids.

He said that when kids come in, they have to change into orange detention garb. Detainees shower, and some are strip-searched. “There are specific protocols for certain offenses,” he said, adding that two staff are always present during those searches, with guards the same gender as the detainee.

Staff members are trained in cultural diversity and issues related to the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, Nybo said.

He described Denney’s housing units, each with an officer overseeing up to 12 kids. “There is also a central control line of vision into each of those housing units,” Nybo said. “There are cameras throughout the facility under central control.”

Detainees aren’t necessarily escorted by more than one staff member, he said, “but going down halls, you have a line of sight. And there are multiple cameras in hallways.”

The facility is upgrading cameras, a process that began before the investigation. Nybo hopes that by fall, Denney will have a more extensive camera system installed. It will allow for recording, which doesn’t happen now.

Addressing the workplace issues, a human resources manager is now at Denney two days a week. And a detention manager has been moved into the staff areas nearly all the time, “to have more direct involvement,” Nybo said.

Without a doubt, there are corrections officers and others at Denney who are positive role models for kids. Too bad their work — often thankless — has been overshadowed by peers who surely know better.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Reclaiming Futures

A Reclaiming Futures Celebration, featuring young people whose lives have been turned around by the mentor program, is scheduled for 4-6 p.m. Wednesday in the Everett Music Hall at Everett Mall, 1402 SE Everett Mall Way. Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Bruce Weiss and Superior Court Judge Marybeth Dingledy will discuss the history and future of the program. Reclaiming Futures brings together the juvenile justice system, substance abuse treatment, and community helpers to involve at-risk kids in positive activities. Event free, but RSVP online at: www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1155592

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