SHERIDAN — A panel of Sequel Youth and Family Services and Normative Services Inc. representatives said, “We do hear your concerns,” in response to community members’ distress about accumulating incidents deriving from the NSI facility.
About 50 neighbors, law enforcement officers and community leaders expressed their concerns and offered suggestions for improving NSI procedures at a forum at the Sheridan County Fairgrounds Exhibit Hall Aug. 9.
Clayton Carr, executive director at NSI, said he is ready to turn things around. Carr attributed NSI’s poor reputation to lack of communication and accountability by previous management.
“I’m going to make it happen. No excuses,” he said.
Community members expressed concerns about notification procedures when a child leaves the NSI campus, NSI’s reputation as a poor neighbor and staff behavior and recruitment.
Samantha Lee, chief compliance and ethics officer at Sequel, is one of five new additions to Sequel’s executive team. She said in this new administrative direction, the organization will focus on standardizing procedures and staff training at each facility, including trauma-informed care and conflict resolution.
The panel said recent and planned improvements to the facility, policies and statistics show NSI is going in the right direction.
“We try to help children heal their lives, along with their families,” Carr said.
Steve Laidacker, an executive at Sequel, said improvements to the NSI facility include additional cameras and lights around campus.
He said window alarms, a 10-foot no-climb fence, secured windows, door alarms and delayed egress doors are improvements they plan to input soon. Laidacker did not specify a timeline for these changes.
Laidacker said a fire safety assessment will determine if secured windows and delayed egress doors are appropriate, based on if the facility is classified as a residential facility or hospital.
Lee said the organization’s leaders are proud that in the past six years they’ve seen a 65% reduction in staff turnover. Last year, 27 students obtained their GED, about a 77% success rate for NSI, Carr said.
Many NSI neighbors alerted to concerns about their families and property. At least six said despite their efforts to make it onto a call alert sheet, they had never been notified about a student who had fled the NSI campus.
Carr said most students who flee the campus are “docile and submissive,” and he doesn’t believe the community needs to fear for their safety with most NSI students.
Lee said some of the students at NSI deal with major behavioral health problems and/or severe trauma. She said the facility is not an acute psychiatric, juvenile justice or locked facility.
“It’s natural for these types of kids that I described to want to push boundaries,” she said.
Laidacker said a common reason students flee the campus is because of a reaction to stress and anxiety, often induced by previous trauma. A seven-day intensive treatment with a therapist is supposed to help manage that anxiety and stress, he said.
“We’re trying to make sure we’re involved in best practice standards,” Laidacker said.
A new regulation at NSI allows students to be physically escorted back to their houses if necessary, Laidacker said.
Suggestions from community members included updating the list of neighbors who are alerted when a child flees the NSI campus, receiving an alert when the child has returned and getting texts instead of a call in the middle of the night.
Melinda Abbott, independent living service coordinator for Volunteers of America-Northern Rockies, asked for more focus on students who are turning 18 and who need guidance as they re-enter the community.
Abbott said she has struggled working with NSI because of poor documentation and lack of transition protocols. She fully understands the anxiety that pushes kids to run away because of the disorganization within the facility, she said.
Laidacker said some students appear to be suitable candidates before they arrive at NSI, but staff can sometimes be overwhelmed by the needs or behavior of the student. If the student poses a serious threat to the community, the student is “moved on” from the facility, he said.
Laidacker said each contract handles relocation differently, depending on whether the student is at NSI through a private or state agency, parental recommendation or court mandate. A letter of removal for a student can take two to 60 days to go through because each contract has a different process, he said.
Todd Richins, NSI neighbor, told the panel “you keep them there as long as you’re able to bill for them,” and challenged the idea that physical restraint could accompany trauma-informed care.
Cristina Gorzalka said she had an experience with an NSI staff-member who, while searching for a student who had fled the NSI campus, said his favorite part about his job was chasing runaways.
“[There are] plenty of staff that we have moved on that are not appropriate to be there,” Laidacker said.
He said all staff relations go through a progressive disciplinary process, where administrators attempt to counteract preconceptions staff may have about how to be a parent and interact with children.
Sheridan County and Prosecuting Attorney Dianna Bennett said the alternatives to NSI, like juvenile court cases and detention, are expensive. She said NSI has paid for some of the costs associated with some NSI students who have fled campus and are suspected of committing crimes, like damages to vehicles and insurance.
Laidacker said Sequel’s main goal is for NSI to become one of the best facilities in the area. Lee said they want to improve the clinical approach at NSI, so students want to stay until they feel confident that they can successfully reintegrate into the community.
The panel did not specify dates for improvements to the facility or next steps. Carr said he wants to have more talks with the community going forward. A call sheet was started during the forum for people who want to be notified if a student flees the NSI campus.