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Thursday, April 17, 2014

State rate study might have helped Judge Riddel Boys Ranch funding

By Deb Gruver
The Wichita Eagle

The Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, where troubled boys try to learn a better life, might not be in jeopardy if the state had followed through with a rate study more than three years ago, Sedgwick County’s corrections director says.

Mark Masterson recalled a Nov. 18, 2009, meeting where Juvenile Justice Authority leaders discussed a funding scenario in which youth residential centers that took in the highest-risk kids and posted the best outcomes would get paid the most.

The rate study was part of the state’s plans to house children deemed in need of care — children removed from their homes by the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, now the Department for Children and Families — separately from juvenile offenders. Until this past month, both types of children could end up housed at a youth residential center such as Judge Riddel.

The boys ranch has not taken in SRS children since 1979. It only serves juvenile offenders.

“The boys ranch was positioned as a model program,” Masterson said. “We don’t serve low-risk kids. We never have. We publish our outcomes. We have outside evaluation.”

But that study never happened. Neither did any increase in what the county received from the state to operate the ranch, which serves juvenile offenders ages 14 to 20.

“If you produce positive outcomes with a tougher population, your rate should reflect that,” Masterson said.

The boys ranch, situated on 63 wooded acres at Lake Afton, still brings in the $126 a day per boy that the state has paid since 2007. And the county still pays $78 a day per boy on top of that, to fill in the gap.

That soon might not be the case.

Sedgwick County Manager William Buchanan on Wednesday will present his recommended budget for next year to commissioners, who ultimately will decide whether to keep subsidizing the ranch or close it. Although Buchanan wouldn’t say in interviews last week if he will push to close the ranch, he has expressed concerns about continuing to subsidize what is a state program and about the state of the ranch itself.

The ranch needs about $2.6 million in repairs, primarily to heating and cooling systems. The county has estimated it would cost $14.7 million to replace the ranch.

Those expenses come at a time when the county is trying to overcome a $9.3 million deficit by the end of next year.

Masterson said any increased funding from a rate study would not have covered capital improvements but would have made a big difference in operational expenses.

Outcomes

Built in 1961 as the Lake Afton Boys Ranch, the ranch is classified as a youth residential center II. The state contracts with several private companies, both not-for-profit and for-profit, to provide services to juvenile offenders.

The Judge Riddel Boys Ranch is the only youth residential center in the state that serves only children from Sedgwick County.

The county publishes the recidivism rates of boys who have completed the ranch’s program on its website, www.sedgwickcounty.org.

Of the 141 boys admitted to the ranch in 2010, the last full year for which data was available, 77, or 55 percent, successfully completed the program.

From 2000 to 2010, the percentage of boys who had not committed new crimes after leaving the ranch averaged 83 percent after six months and 65 percent after a year. The range from 2000 to 2010 was 62 percent to 95 percent at six months and 47 percent to 78 percent at a year.

Other youth residential centers haven’t always had to report how well they did — or didn’t do — helping boys turn their lives around. The county has published outcomes at the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch because of its own internal policies — not because of any directive by the state.

Juvenile Justice Authority spokesman Jan Lunsford confirmed in an e-mail Friday that the state has not always required youth residential centers designated class II to prove effectiveness to get the $126 per child per day.

For part of fiscal year 2008 and all of fiscal years 2009 and 2010, reporting outcomes “was voluntary,” Lunsford said. “It was required of all YRC IIs” in fiscal years 2011 and 2012, he said.

Data was collected twice a year, Lunsford said in his e-mail, and reported in a database maintained by the state’s community-based standards vendor.

“The problem now is that beginning in (fiscal year 2013), the JJA lost this due to federal funding budget cuts,” he wrote.

Lunsford also confirmed that the state never conducted the rate study, which would have been difficult to do without a requirement to report standards.

“There was apparently some discussion about a concept that would have had tiers of YRC IIs and providers would have been compensated based on the type of youth and services offered, but it appears no serious work was done on how the system would have been structured. Right now I am not sure why it went no further and was not implemented,” Lunsford said in his Friday note.

Reducing funding

Working under Buchanan’s direction to cut costs, Masterson has worked up three scenarios that could reduce the county’s funding of the ranch.

Budget staff asked him to see whether he could make the ranch work with only the revenue it receives from the state and from a school lunch program. Masterson said he couldn’t.

He said he was able to reduce the county’s funding by moving to two 12-hour staffing shifts a day instead of three 8-hour shifts.

In one option, the county would lower the ranch’s capacity from 49 to 42 beds, reduce staff by 18 full-time equivalent positions and bring the difference between how much the ranch takes in and how much it costs to operate down to $708,500. The county is spending just less than $1.6 million on the ranch in its current budget.

Another option would reduce capacity to 35 beds, cut about 23 full-time equivalent positions and decrease the county’s funding to about $655,000.

A third option would reduce capacity to 28 beds, cut 27 1/2 full-time equivalent positions and decrease the county’s funding to $759,560.

Of the three, Masterson favors the first option because the ranch would serve the most boys.

“This would have the least impact on the system,” he said.

But he warns that a reduction in programming and staff could result in more boys re-offending. Less structured activities also could increase problem behavior, he said.

The second and third options would be even worse.

All three options would jeopardize safety and security, he said.

Closure consequences

Buchanan and Masterson shared the three options with commissioners Thursday and with The Eagle hours later.

Masterson noted the ranch’s future is in someone else’s hands.

A majority of commissioners want to keep the ranch open. Board chairman Tim Norton suggested keeping it open at least six months into next year, which would give legislators time to look for more money.

How to pay for new heating and cooling — or a new ranch altogether — is another challenge.

Sedgwick County District Court’s five juvenile judges have pressed commissioners to keep the ranch open.

If the ranch closes, they said in a June 11 letter, “many of these offenders will graduate to the adult criminal system,” which would cost taxpayers far more than it does to operate the ranch.

The judges said that “the future benefits to be gained will outweigh the costs.”

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com.

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