Press "Enter" to skip to content

Aurora Plains Abuses Highlight Failure of Privatized Juvenile Detention/Treatment

Bart Pfankuch’s lengthy multi-part exposé of child abuse at the Aurora Plains Academy in Plankinton is making serious waves, drawing from Governor Noem promises to tackle violations that have gone unaddressed by Republican leaders for years.

The stories of abuse of children are awful, but I would like to focus on a broader policy issue that gets attention at the bottom of the portion of Pfankuch’s reporting that ran in this morning’s Aberdeen American News, the apparent failure of privatization to care for children as effectively and humanely as public detention and treatment programs:

Some national studies and reports have shown that compared with state-run facilities, privately operated juvenile facilities see higher employee turnover rates, less employee training, decreased facility maintenance and increased injuries for both staff and residents.

Melissa Goemann, senior policy counsel for the non-profit National Juvenile Justice Network, said treatment outcomes and resident safety are lower at institutions run by for-profit, private firms than those that are publicly owned and overseen. Government oversight of private facilities tends to be lower as well, she said.

“There’s so many negative consequences that we’ve seen in private, for-profit facilities,” said Goemann, who researched studies and reports on privately run facilities for a 2015 position paper for the network. “The private, for-profit facilities in general have a much worse track record in terms of resident and employee safety and positive treatment outcomes.”

Goemann said for-profit firms need to maintain a strong, steady population of residents in order to maximize profits, sometimes taking in residents who don’t really need to be there. They also try to limit spending on employee training, resident programming and other overhead expenses in order to maintain cash flow, she said [Bart Pfankuch, “Governor to Enact Reform of Youth Treatment Facilities,” South Dakota News Watch, 2019.06.12].

Hmmm… it sounds like the real reform Governor Noem needs to enact is to take the detention and treatment of juveniles out of the hands of private-sector profiteers and put this important public function in the hands of responsible, accountable public officials.

22 Comments

  1. Michael L. Wyland 2019-06-18 13:54

    “Accountable public officials” is an interesting phrase, considering how many health and welfare scandals have been presided over by such officials, typically without consequences. Would you believe state officials exercising lax oversight of a contractor would suddenly become more rigorous when supervising themselves? How would a state employee stand up to their employers to resist bad decisions or demand adequate funding to assure quality?

    Abuses can happen regardless of the management methodologies being used. The second key is the accountability of state leaders, regardless of whether the facilities, organizations, and employees are contracted for-profit or nonprofit, state-run with state employees, or some other option. The first key is having people in charge who care about quality and outcomes/impacts and act accordingly.

  2. Porter Lansing 2019-06-18 14:25

    Tsk Tsk Tsk, Michael L. Wyland. “There’s so many negative consequences that we’ve seen in private, for-profit facilities,” said Goemann, who researched studies and reports on privately run facilities for a 2015 position paper for the network. “The private, for-profit facilities in general have a much worse track record in terms of resident and employee safety and positive treatment outcomes.”
    Your assessment that “abuses can happen regardless” and that “having people who care in charge” helps no one, helps no situation, and offers little but contrary distraction away from the kids being abused. Handing SD’s problem element off to private abusers is but another “sweep it under the rug” solution from The Little State Who Won’t.

  3. tara volesky 2019-06-18 15:42

    Wasn’t Star Academy state run?

  4. Porter Lansing 2019-06-18 15:48

    Didn’t LDS exclude black people?

  5. mike from iowa 2019-06-18 17:51

    Goemann said for-profit firms need to maintain a strong, steady population of residents in order to maximize profits, sometimes taking in residents who don’t really need to be there. They also try to limit spending on employee training, resident programming and other overhead expenses in order to maintain cash flow, she said

    This is exactly what wingnuts refuse to acknowledge or even ignore, as long as a for profit can maximize its profits, anything goes. And, of course, South Dakota wingnuts are known world wide for due diligence in oversight…..NOT!

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-06-18 18:28

    Michael, yes, that interesting phrase came out of my keyboard because of exactly the concern you raise: South Dakota’s public officials haven’t exactly distinguished themselves in proper oversight of children in detention and treatment. First Gina Score, now these kids.

    But the studies cited point out that, in general, the private for-profit model leads to more problems than public systems. It may be hard to convince folks of that here under a regime whose prime currency is undermining faith in government and lulling us into the belief that the free market works fine without responsible attentive government. That propaganda from the SDGOP leads to a corrupt state in which cronies pull the strings and enrich themselves and problems like this private child pen go unaddressed. Clearly, we need new management at Aurora Plains, but we also need new management above them.

    Translation: vote for South Dakota Democrats.

  7. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-06-18 18:42

    Michael’s statement that the first step is ” having people in charge who care about quality and outcomes/impacts and act accordingly” is actually very important. I agree completely.

    Again, translation: vote for South Dakota Democrats.

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-06-18 18:45

    Hey, Tara, as new Libertarian Party official (congrats!), how about building some bridges? How about recognizing that your new party’s real opponent in South Dakota is not Democrats; it’s the party of Lederman and Noem. The party of Lederman and Noem lets government decline into feckless cronyism. Unplug them from power, create a government with an equal balance of honest Libertarians and honest Democrats (or, you know what, we’ll give you Libertarians a chance to get on your feet: we’ll handle majority status for a few cycles, and you can play the loyal and vocal minority), and you’ll see not bigger government, but smarter, fairer, more representative government that doesn’t do to kids what the Janklow–Noem regime has done.

  9. tara volesky 2019-06-18 19:13

    You are right Cory. The party of Cronyism, favoritism and nepotism needs to be challenged and called out on the way they run this state. I am just a bit player but I know Gideon Oaks, a former Republican will do a honorable job leading the charge. It should be interesting. Thanks. By the way, I did vote for Billie Sutton.

  10. Old Spec.5 2019-06-18 19:18

    All DSS inspections of youth detention/ treatment/ etc facilities are scheduled with the facility, last time I looked On the other hand inspections of nursing homes are unannounced. Kind of strange isn’t it?

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-06-18 19:44

    Dang, OS5: if a child I’m responsible for is quartered in any sort of facility, I want to be able to drop in to check on that child any time I want.

  12. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-06-18 19:44

    Gideon and I need to get together for a podcast… or maybe for a gubernatorial ticket.

  13. Certain Inflatable Recreational Devices 2019-06-18 21:03

    Cory, I think there is an intense possibility that you and Gideon could mount a gubernatorial campaign. Gideon is not a libertarian “purist,” whatever that might mean to Ayn Rand, if she actually were a libertarian.

    You’re both eloquent, and you both truly have, until you get offered enough graft at least, a desire to stem governmental abuses and to make life better for those around you–all the way around you, like about 12000 miles in any direction around you.

    I’d vote for an Oakes/Heidelberger ticket.

  14. Debbo 2019-06-18 21:21

    It’s beyond horrific that the national GOP preys on refugee children and the SDGOP allows a private business to prey on SD children.

    If the GOP weren’t so morally and ethically and intellectually weak, they wouldn’t go after the weakest people– children.

  15. Porter Lansing 2019-06-18 22:53

    Taken out of context expecting competent people to be in charge of a reform school is proper. However, when Mr. Wyland uses his first paragraph to disparage the thought of the state stepping in and doing it, one is led to believe he wants the private prison company to simply replace staff and be allowed to try it again … child welfare be damned.
    He then admits there is no channel through which state employees can make complaints that result in meaningful change. Who’s fault is that, Republican Party? Is that a reason not to try? It’s not the first time I’ve called Michael Wyland out for not even wanting SD to try to get better, if it costs more than nothing.

  16. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-06-19 12:57

    Thanks, CIRD! One vote down, 120,000 to go!

    I think I could convince my running mate Oakes to promise the kind of rigorous oversight by new and effective public officials that would help allay Michael’s fears and reverse South Dakota’s sorry record on juvenile detention and treatment.

  17. Michael L. Wyland 2019-06-19 13:53

    Porter interprets my hesitancy to endorse state operation of facilities serving vulnerable populations as implicitly endorsing for-profit corporate operation of these facilities under contract to the state. This was not my intention.

    My point is, as Cory points out, that the overarching requirement is that state leaders need to care enough about quality, outcomes,and impacts to pay attention to whoever manages the facilities and serves the clients in question. If this first principle is present, vulnerable people are in less danger and more likely to be served appropriately, regardless of who actually delivers the services.

    I would also observe that many nonprofit entities contract with state government to deliver services (e.g., nonprofit adjustment training centers serving adults with developmental disabilities). Those nonprofit organizations are often neglected in the discussion of private vs. state operation because most people interpret “private” as being “for-profit” only.

  18. chris 2019-06-19 22:14

    Not sure if this is relevant to this story at all, but- a few years ago (maybe 10+), a friend bought a large used Mercedes down by Sioux City. The former owner’s title was still in the glovebox, so curiously we looked up the name. The car had belonged to a psychiatrist, who was at one time drawing (one of?) the highest salarie(s) of ANY SD employee, if I recall correctly. Doping up prisoners is serious business in this state.

  19. Kurt Evans 2019-06-20 23:48

    Michael L. Wyland writes:

    My point is, as Cory points out, that the overarching requirement is that state leaders need to care enough about quality, outcomes,and impacts to pay attention to whoever manages the facilities and serves the clients in question.

    Well said, Michael, and it’s probably worth noting that forcible detention can never really be privatized, because with or without accountability, the managers always get their special legal authorities and our tax dollars from government.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.