SHERIDAN — Three former Normative Services Inc. students show how years of staff and leadership changes make every student experience different.
Darion Lund remembers from his NSI experience: the names of his favorite teachers, caring for llamas on Fridays, rebuilding a chicken coop with two other students and earning banners for house accomplishments. Lund was a student at NSI for seven months in 2012 when he was 14.
Savannah Provost said NSI would be a much better facility if staffing were more consistent.
“It sucked because you’d build relationships with these people [staff] and they would just walk out of your life and you’d never see them again,” she said.
Patricia Beyer was a student at NSI in the early 2000s, during her eighth-grade year. Beyer said she ended up at NSI because she spoke up about violence against her at home. While she didn’t have a choice about becoming an NSI student, she said she thought anything would be better than the foster care system.
For the first few months, Lund wasn’t able to open up to anyone about his experiences before NSI. Eventually, he accepted the help the teachers and staff offered him.
Lund said there were about five attempts by other students to run away while he was there, but it wasn’t a prominent issue. Staff held the students accountable for their actions and truly cared about each student.
Lund has talked to students who were at NSI more recently who feel staff don’t care as much about individual students.
NSI teachers and staff helped Lund improve his relationship with his adoptive mother, transition to high school after being at the facility and gain communication skills. Lund said the staff tried to make the experience positive for students who were far from home.
Lund was court ordered to the NSI facility because he violated his probation and was placed on house arrest. He was also expelled from school. He said the discipline and accountability teachers and staff enforced at NSI were crucial to helping him decide to forge a better path.
Provost was an NSI resident from April 2018 until May 2019. She said two staff members filled a parental role, as people she felt she could talk to and supported her.
Overall, Provost said she thinks being at NSI was beneficial. She said staff taught her how to reach out for support when she needs it.
“If I hadn’t gone there I would be doing a lot worse right now,” she said.
Provost said during the last two months she was a resident at NSI, students were running away almost every day.
Provost said she thinks the reason so many students started to flee the campus was because they felt confident they could overpower the staff.
Provost said the proposed changes to the NSI facility, like locked windows, delayed egress doors and a fence won’t do much to change the number of students who are fleeing the facility.
“People are going to do the same things either way,” she said.
Before and after
The most prominent things Beyer remembers about her time at the facility are that she was provided clothing, a bed and excellent food.
“They taught me how to confront people,” she said, referring to the seven levels of intervention that are used as conflict resolution techniques at the facility.
Beyer said being an NSI student did not benefit her in the long run, but she doesn’t blame NSI, DFS or her parents for the decisions she made as an adolescent and young adult.
Beyer said when she was at NSI, students would get in trouble or would be punished for saying they didn’t want to be at the facility because it was considered a privilege to be there by judges and law enforcement.
Beyer said after six months at NSI, she felt she had excelled in the program and thought she would be able to leave. Beyer said a judge told her if she didn’t want to be there, she should walk out. So she did.
“I ran away [from NSI] too, but I came back because I had nowhere else to go,” she said.
Beyer’s sister, Pamela, said while Patricia Beyer was at NSI, no one addressed the problems in their home environment, so she returned to the same troubling situation. Pamela Beyer said problems with at-risk youth run much deeper than NSI protocols.
When the sisters were 17, their parents were incarcerated. Pamela Beyer said no law enforcement or child services agency checked on them.
She said her experience with the Department of Family Services represents “a strong oversight into our family.”
Pamela Beyer contacted The Sheridan Press through a letter to the editor Aug. 7.
“This community should take a long look at themselves and how they are responding to the events at NSI. I found very little evidence that the community, the staff of NSI and the press had any empathy for the children who live there. I hope that these people realize that these kids do not choose to be there. That the issues these kids are facing are multifaceted. It needs to be known that troubled children come from trouble homes. From trauma and abuse. I’m left with the impression that the residents of Sheridan, Wyoming, are more worried about these kids being on their lawns,” she wrote.
“It doesn’t matter where they’re from or what they’ve done,” she said. “They’re still kids.”
Pamela Beyer said she hopes the community will push to address the roots of what pushes at-risk youth to run away, including home situations and previous trauma.
Samantha Lee, chief ethics and compliance officer at Sequel, said at the community forum that many of the students at NSI have experienced trauma or behavioral health issues.
Lee said trauma-informed care is part of the new direction the organization plans to take at NSI and Sequel’s other facilities.
Working at the facility
Sara Sanders worked at NSI for three months as direct care staff in the summer of 2010.
Sanders said she enjoyed helping teens who didn’t have a positive role model in their lives. She said the NSI program gives students the opportunity to learn in a relatively normal high school environment.
It was fulfilling for Sanders to show students what life could be like outside of the situation in which they were raised. It was challenging to convince students to open up to about traumatic experiences and their hopes for the future.
Sanders said some students she worked with were placed in NSI because of drug transportation charges or theft. Often, it was because they were assisting a parent in committing the crime and were encouraged or forced to participate.
Sanders said she understands why some NSI students flee the campus. While students are given the opportunity to learn through school and jobs, they are also reconciling with the experiences that brought them to NSI and are trying to reform as juvenile delinquents, she said.
She remembers one child who ran away from the facility but was “very nonviolent.” She said stress combined with his autism diagnosis led him to be there one second and gone the next.
Sanders said it would be beneficial if NSI staff explained to neighbors what potentially dangerous behaviors to look for to improve public safety and peace of mind.
She said a fence around the facility could deter students from fleeing but, “Would it keep a determined kid who knows how to climb the fence from leaving? Probably not,” she said.
When she was employed there, Sanders said she felt upper management had positive organizational goals for helping children become productive members of society, but her immediate supervisors didn’t always share those goals.
Sanders appreciates the work NSI does and hopes it remains open for children in the state who don’t have other choices at home.
A family emergency required her to relocate to Buffalo after three months in her position. Sanders said she liked the work she was doing but would not have liked to stay in the position for too long.
NSI has faced criticism in recent years because of staff behavior, including charges of felony child abuse, third degree sexual abuse and aggravated assault and battery separate from work at the school.
Community members at the forum Aug. 9 said NSI will continue to recruit low-quality employees if the starting wages are “equivalent to a Walmart shelf-stocker.”
Preparing for life after NSI
Melinda Abbott, independent living coordinator at Volunteers for America-Northern Rockies said, “the intention is there, the structure and organization [at NSI] has been all over the place.”
Abbott works with students as they transition from NSI into the community when they turn 18. She said while she has had some strong, mutually beneficial working relationships with NSI case managers over the past 14 years, lately things have become more challenging.
“It’s hit and miss,” she said.
Abbott was not speaking on behalf of VOANR when she spoke to The Sheridan Press.
“VOA does not have a position or statement regarding NSI and hopes to continue our working relationship with them in the future,” she said in an email.
Abbott said students should be involved in developing a post-NSI transition plan on their first day at the facility. NSI Executive Director Clayton Carr agreed at the forum.
Abbott said NSI has a positive goal: to teach students educationally and behaviorally to make healthy life choices. However, the organization and structure of the facility need significant improvement.
Staff turnover, retention and ambiguity about leadership led to organizational issues, Abbott said.
Success for a student would be having that student leave NSI feeling as though the experience improved their lives. She said she has interacted with many angry students who don’t understand what is going on at the facility or know how to reintegrate into the community when they leave.
She said with the planned changes to the NSI facility, she hopes the focus will remain on the students and addressing the roots of what may cause them to flee the facility.
Abbott said the suggestions from community members and responses from Sequel and NSI administrators at the public forum represent a step in the right direction.