DOC says changes are happening at Lincoln Hills, it just takes time, as staff continue to express safety concerns

Published: Sep. 28, 2020 at 8:29 PM CDT
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MERRILL, Wis. (WSAW) - Current and former staff of Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake Schools gathered on the steps of the Lincoln County Courthouse Monday to watch a virtual hearing of one of their former students who beat his teacher in 2017. Carlos Gonzalez was convicted of battering Pandora Lobacz and sentenced to eight years in prison, but he is appealing that sentence.

The hearing ultimately was rescheduled to mid-October because Gonzalez could not appear due to a COVID-19 outbreak at Columbia Correctional Institution. As of Monday, there is one inmate who is actively sick with the disease and 10 staff out sick from it. Other correctional facilities have seen larger outbreaks, like Kettle Moraine, which has 267 active cases just counting inmates.

Regardless, the other staff showed up to the courthouse to show support of Lobacz and to continue to press that they have safety concerns at the facility. That included Steve Schenzel, who said just before he was set to retire in April after being a youth counselor there for nine years, a youth punched him in the nose causing him to get surgery.

“We as staff members and friends and cohorts know, you know, the anxiety, the stress, the fear of am I coming home to my family that night? How many hours do I have to work? What am I going to have to put up with in terms of youth, you know, what they say, the disrespect, the threats, possibly being battered,” Lobacz said.

Lobacz has not worked at the facility since being severely beaten but continues to stay in contact with and advocate for staff and student safety and worked as a teacher in these types of facilities for more than two decades. She and other staff believe youth are not being held accountable for their actions, those actions being as small as foul language and disrespect or as big as violent behavior and sexual harassment towards other youth and staff. They said staff do not have control of the facility.

“Change is not going to occur in these youth unless you start holding them accountable for their criminal behavior, in their victimization toward others,” Lobacz said. “You provide a safe environment for them and you provide positive role models and you provide consequences for both positive and negative behavior.”

She said youth are not receiving the proper services for cognitive treatment to address their childhood trauma and the impacts that has on their growing brains.

“If I could flip a light switch and have it happen overnight, I would, but there is no light switch for this," Ron Hermes, the Division of Juvenile Corrections administrator said. “It takes time to implement and to train staff and really to change the direction in how we are working with youth.”

Hermes was appointed a year ago and has a background in the Wis. Department of Children and Families working to oversee foster care for the state. He said any violent or inappropriate behavior from youth is unacceptable, but noted youths' brains are often impacted by childhood trauma and sometimes will not form properly because of it.

“Many youth at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake do not have the skills to do well, unfortunately,” he said. “We all want the youth to do well, but we can’t make them. We have to help them build the necessary skills so that they can do well," a notion staff do not argue with.

He said they are looking to proven best practices. He said they recently started training staff in Dialectical Behavior Therapy to help youth who do not have impulse control to understand where their behaviors are coming from and how to control them. He said they are starting the training in two living units to see how they can best implement it to the whole campus. They have a year-long contract to implement this training.

Staff have already received trauma-informed care training to deescalate situations verbally rather than physically and to build relationships with youth being mindful of how their trauma could impact their behavior, but Hermes said this will enhance those skills, bringing youth on the same page as staff.

“It’s really much more of a therapeutic approach. It’s really a training so that all staff and the youth are all talking the same language. It’s using specific approaches with youth to redirect when they are not behaving in the proper way and it’s also about focusing on, you know, pro-social or positive and acknowledging positive actions by the youth,” Hermes explained.

Staff have echoed a lot of the same philosophies, but have several things they are looking for that they say will help turn things around at the facility. They said they want management that supports them because they do not feel supported. They need more staff, especially during the pandemic which was a challenge for the corrections field nationwide before the pandemic. They would like to see a psychological services unit (PSU) in every living unit with effective treatment given by professionals with that background. Hermes said while they may not have PSU in each living unit, they are planning on assigning PSU staff particular units so they remain consistent with the youth in each unit.

Staff said they would also like to see the Lincoln County court system take criminal behavior more seriously. Staff said most youth that get charged with a criminal act while inside the facility have their sentences stayed, so essentially monitored on probation, which runs concurrently with any adult convictions they already have.

“We as a state have not done right for kids falling through the cracks for decades, and instead of us figuring it out and improving it, all we are in the DJC (Division of Juvenile Corrections) are political pons,” she said adding so are the youth.

She said, as a state, we need to invest in youth as young as 3-years-old to ensure their communities provide role models, positive support, addressing needs in schools and communities to combat their living situations and traumatic experiences they have had growing up so they do not even reach places like Lincoln Hills.

“By the time we get them at 16, 17, 18-years-old when they already have an adult commitment and diagnosed with conduct disorder, which is a deep-seated criminal mentality, how do you be a catalyst for change in terms of their cognitive beliefs and, you know, what’s been instilled in them for 18 years,” she stated.

In response to the question of what staff can do in the meantime as changes are slowly implemented, Hermes said he encourages staff to continue building relationships with the youth and apply their training.

“None of what I’m talking about is going to eliminate those situations completely, but through DBT, through the enhanced behavioral motivation system, the level system that we will be implementing and the incentive system," Hermes said, “we believe that the youth will really be motivated in their behavior because they will see a direct link to how they can eventually go back home or go back in the community.”

Currently, the facility is set to close in July, 2021 as alternatives continue to see challenges in approving new sites. Hermes said they will continue to improve Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake Schools both physically and in staff and youth training and treatment until the doors officially close.

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