August 21, 2014

Sad footnote on boys ranch

So some teens who might have benefited from the continuing operation of the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch are going instead to youth residential centers far from Wichita and their families. It’s an unsurprising yet sad footnote to a July closure that nobody originally wanted and that should have been avoided yet somehow wasn’t.

Most locals seemed to agree that the 53-year-old ranch at Lake Afton was special in addition to being cost-effective as crime prevention, which is why so many opposed County Manager William Buchanan’s proposal two years ago to close it for lack of state funding. The rural setting and hands-on programs translated into reduced recidivism, saving the county more than $1 million a year according to one study.

More important, it changed lives. One of its last residents wrote The Eagle in May about how it taught him “respect toward authority and the meaning of going to school and getting a great education so I can actually look forward to becoming somebody in life.”

Aggressive lobbying couldn’t overcome the state’s lack of interest in spending more than $126 per day per boy on a state program that cost the county about $200 per day per boy to operate. The Legislature helped with $750,000 more for fiscal 2014, but when that money went away as of June 30 the program soon followed.

Some of the 19 Sedgwick County boys ordered into state custody since May who would have been candidates for the ranch have ended up with the Sedgwick County Youth Program, the Salvation Army in Wichita and Lakeside Academy in Goddard. That’s good.

But others have gone to Topeka, Junction City, Dodge City and Pittsburg. The alternative facilities outside the county may suit the young offenders’ needs on paper, but what will be lost to the long distance in terms of family visitation and participation in programs and continuity of school district and treatment services?

That said, Sedgwick County Commissioners Richard Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn and the commission candidates who’ve vowed to reopen the ranch – if the Nov. 4 election gives them the votes – need to deal with reality, including the facility’s infrastructure needs. Plus, the county is shopping the facility to potential tenants willing to sign a 10-year lease. The process could effectively lead to a privatization of the boys ranch that would help the same kind of young offenders locally, but in a way that puts less or no pressure on the county’s tight budget. Or the property might find another purpose.

Still, it’s hard to see the ranch gone, and to see boys it might have helped going away from Sedgwick County as a result. And it’s easy to wish the political will and dollars had been found in Sedgwick County, Topeka or both to avoid this outcome.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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