By Shawn Chitnis

GOLDEN, Colo. (CBS4) – State leaders overseeing the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center announced changes coming to the campus Thursday. The center has already seen improvements following two separate escapes and a riot in 2019.

(credit: CBS)

“Large facilities are not in the best interest of youth and they don’t deliver the best outcomes,” said Michelle Barnes, the executive director of Colorado Department of Human Services.

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Four staff members were taken to the hospital and six others were treated for minor injuries after the riot in May 2019. That same month, two young men escaped from the facility, using sheets to get through a second-story window. Another teen, Quinn Scaggs, also used sheets to escape from a juvenile facility in Golden in June 2019.

The sheets used for an escape from Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center in May 2019. (credit: CBS)

Lookout Mountain is managed by the Division of Youth Services, which is a part of CDHS.

Barnes as well as other agency leaders explained that they want to take a “smaller is better” approach by splitting up the center in to four separate campuses. One of the buildings in Golden is the size of the entire facility in Colorado Springs.

(credit: CBS)

In addition to announcing changes and priorities, leaders also acknowledged the issues plaguing the facility, including drugs. Barnes also said they need more of a focus on shifting from a correctional facility to one that rehabilitates youth.

Barnes says safety must remain a priority at all hours of each day. The fence added around the campus has anti-mesh material to help prevent escapes.

(credit: CBS)

“Each one of the buildings will serve as its own youth center,” said Mina Castillo Cohen, the director of the Office of Children, Youth and Families, which is also a part of CDHS. “What’s exciting is that each youth center will be able to build its own culture.”

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The campus currently has a building that can hold 16 people, as well as another that can house 24, and two more than can house 32 each. The changes announced Thursday would move toward a setup with 10 to 12 bed pods in the new layout. They are working to bring down the number of youth that stay at the center.

(credit: CBS)

Leaders pointed out that they have made progress in their care of youth including reducing seclusion. Lookout Mountain is one of the leaders in the nation in finding alternatives to locking someone in a room, according to DYS.

The total number of people committed in Colorado at any age has gone down but the challenges specific to minors has only increased over the past 10 years. Leaders say they want to focus less on punishment and more on treatment. It will be a focus on the childhood leading up to their entrance into DYS, not the crimes that sent them into the system.

DYS has approval to start recruiting employees outside of Colorado and increase the salary for staff. The changes are set to take effect on July 1.

The current number of youth at the facility is 65, they also have 100 staff members but hope to reach 160 to manage all four campuses under the new approach. Improvements include trying to match the trauma-informed focus that acknowledges the majority of youth come from the welfare system and are behind in school. They have experienced challenges that need to be addressed while in custody.

Recommendations from a recent review by a third party will be released in three weeks, according to leaders speaking to the media.

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“What would be the perfect model, you would not see this,” said Anders Jacobson, the director of the Division of Youth Services.

Shawn Chitnis