- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2016

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - A county-run agency that temporarily houses adolescents who are involved in the court system has operated at or near capacity almost continuously for the past year, and administrators say the outlook for this year shows no sign of letting up.

“February is normally our slowest time of year, and we have been running at five or six kids for most of the month,” said Marsha Hughes, director of the Northwest Youth Assessment Center.

The Williston facility, which shelters teens ages 12 to 18, is staffed to accommodate six, the Williston Herald (https://bit.ly/24R7h6L ) reported.

When the center is full, kids are turned away, which can mean trips with a law enforcement escort to centers as far away as Bismarck. Last year, the staff was forced to turn about a dozen teenagers away, Hughes said.

Figures from 2015 show substantial increases in occupancy at the center, which takes in youth from Williams, McKenzie, Divide and Mountrail counties who are in transition between their homes and court-ordered placements. Teens are often admitted because of parental neglect or other troubles, including running away from home, truancy, use of alcohol, or more serious criminal offenses.

Admissions in 2015 shot up to 153, a 20 percent increase over 2014’s total of 129, and last year’s figures showed an average length of stay of about 6 days, a nearly 40 percent jump from 2014.

The center’s annual report’s comparison of full and empty days also shows an uptick in steady business, with four full days in 2014 and a spike to 29 in 2015, and 45 empty days in 2014 as compared to just 12 last year.

The sharpest increase overall is the number of total days spent in the facility, which shot up to 970 last year, a 70 percent increase over 2014.

“The last few months of the year we were busier than we ever have been during the holiday months. Our daily average increased as did the length of stay,” Sean Teskey, the center’s assistant director, told county commissioners last week.

It’s unclear what’s behind the increase, and the center’s function as a temporary placement for young people doesn’t help shed light on the issue.

“We don’t really know. We don’t have the front end information on these kids,” Hughes said. “We get them when we get them, I have no way of knowing. all of sudden we just got really busy.”

Teens who stay at the center are usually placed by the court system in foster homes or other residential centers for at-risk young people, but that process is starting to hit snags as numbers and needs increase.

“They are getting much harder to place due to their mental health and addiction needs,” the facility’s year-end report reads.

A lack of local mental health services, particularly any immediate or crisis options, combined with a statewide strain on places that do offer help, is to blame, Hughes said.

Despite the surge in young people coming the doors, revenue is increasing, and employees at the facility aren’t overworked, yet.

“We’re OK right now; we’ve got most shifts double staffed. We never want to be in a position where staff is stretched too thin with these kids,” Hughes said.

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Information from: Williston Herald, https://www.willistonherald.com


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