DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In northeastern Minnesota, a juvenile correctional facility will officially shut its doors today. This facility is called Mesabi Academy. It's privately owned. There was an investigation into charges of physical and sexual abuse there, and this prompted the government to remove boys from the facility. But the closure today exposes another problem. There's a shortage of large correctional facilities for some of the nation's most troubled kids. Tom Scheck from American Public Media reports.
TOM SCHECK, BYLINE: Ayuub Ali spent 10 months at Mesabi Academy after stealing a car, abusing drugs and possessing a weapon. Last month, he was one of the boys removed from the 123-bed facility. He then spent another month in county detention while his probation officer searched for a chemical dependency program that would take him. Until a new program could be found, Ali was placed on electronic home monitoring. When he was released earlier this month, he pledged to start making better choices.
AYUUB ALI: And I learned my lesson a little bit, but I turn 18 and now I think about my responsibility and how to stay on the narrow path and not end up in a situation like that again.
SCHECK: But Ali has put himself squarely back in that situation again after cutting off his ankle bracelet and running away. Instead of treatment for chemical dependency, a judge decided yesterday to send Ali to a state-run correctional facility for juveniles. During sentencing, Ali expressed concerns about going to another program after being at Mesabi Academy, a place of last resort for many juveniles. Since 1998, the facility took kids who committed serious crimes, difficult to manage foster care cases and mentally ill children who couldn't be handled at home. Mesabi was the focus of a series of stories by APM Reports that examined how the facility handled internal investigations into sexual and physical abuse.
After interviewing Ali and other boys at Mesabi, county officials expanded their investigation and are now looking into more than a dozen cases of alleged maltreatment. In one instance, a mother pleaded with her son to cooperate with investigators. In March, she recorded this call while her son was serving time at a different juvenile facility.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mom, I'm telling you - like, I already told you the truth. Like, yes, I did stuff with that staff but I'm not telling no cop. Like, I mean...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's not a cop. It's child protection.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, no, no, they have a sheriff...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You have to tell them the truth.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm not going to tell them the truth. She doesn't need to go to jail.
SCHECK: The boy and his mother were granted anonymity because the allegations involved sexual abuse. He eventually talked to investigators. A spokesman from Mesabi Academy's parent company, Pennsylvania-based KidsPeace, declined repeated interview requests. He issued a statement denying wrongdoing and said they're closing the facility because it could not continue to provide the care needed after the government agencies removed the boys.
KidsPeace also runs psychiatric facilities in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Maine. Mesabi Academy is one of several facilities that helped Minnesota and other states place troubled children. Its closure has also prompted difficulties for officials seeking to place those children.
KEITH CRUISE: The safety net is tenuous at best.
SCHECK: That's Fordham University Professor Keith Cruise who says fewer juveniles these days are placed in large institutions like Mesabi. The new focus is on community-based treatment, but that creates another set of problems.
CRUISE: The beds and availability for a more intensive or higher level of care, they have been downsizing. And therefore waiting lists can sometimes be long and it can become more difficult or challenging to place youth.
SCHECK: Privacy laws make it hard to determine where all of the boys at Mesabi have been sent, and government officials are saying little. Ayuub Ali's father, Abdishakur Haji, is angry and frustrated with the situation. He says the system failed his son who spent seven years bouncing from one treatment facility to another.
ABDISHAKUR HAJI: I'm really worried because we would have a big chance to help him and we couldn't. I wish we could help him. But right now, I need help. I don't think I can help him.
SCHECK: Ali will serve time in the state's juvenile correctional facility until he turns 19 in January. For NPR News, I'm Tom Scheck in Minneapolis.
GREENE: And that story comes to us from APM Reports, American Public Media's investigative unit.
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