A plan to reprivatize seven secure facilities housing delinquent youths has been pushed back by at least a year, the head of the Division of Youth Services of the Arkansas Department of Human Services acknowledged in an interview Monday.
The juvenile treatment centers, which house 163 youths across the state, were taken over by the DYS on Jan. 1, 2017. In August, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and DYS Director Betty Guhman announced the lockups would be returned to private contractors as soon as summer 2018, with a request for proposals to be issued by the end of 2017. But December came and went without the agency issuing an RFP.
Guhman, who was appointed by Hutchinson to run the DYS in 2016, said Monday that the RFP likely won't be ready until early next year. Because the bidding process takes months to complete, the facilities are now expected to remain in state hands until at least July 2019.
In the months ahead, the DYS will commission a study of how it can better serve the youth committed to its supervision. For years, advocates have pushed Arkansas to close or downsize its residential lockups. Guhman stopped short of explicitly advocating a reduction in bed space, but she did suggest that DYS seriously needs to reassess whether its model is meeting youths' needs.
"If we have 450 commitments a year, what do these kids look like?" she said. "What do they need? Do all 450 need secure placements? Or maybe it would be better ... if we had four secure facilities and three less secure — group homes or transition homes or something like that. If you look at our stats, 90 percent of our kids have committed nonviolent offenses ... and yet we're treating them all pretty much the same."
The state takeover of the seven lockups was prompted by a political stalemate over who would get paid to run the facilities. For more than 20 years, the lockups were operated by two nonprofits, South Arkansas Youth Services and Consolidated Youth Services, but in 2016 the state instead gave the contract to an Indiana-based for-profit company, Youth Opportunity Investments. Legislators sympathetic to the ousted nonprofits blocked the new contract in late 2016, which meant the state would have entered the new year with no one to run the facilities at all.
Hutchinson then stepped in. He directed the DYS to assume provisional management of the facilities, comprised of sites in Dermott, Mansfield, Lewisville, Colt and Harrisburg. (The state's eighth and largest facility, the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center in Alexander, continued to be operated by a private for-profit provider; 120 youths are housed at the AJATC.) In a matter of days, some 300 staff members at the facilities were converted into state employees.
Since the takeover, the DYS has struggled at times to effectively manage the facilities. Initially, behavioral health treatment and education were nonexistent at some lockups. Shortages of staff and basic supplies hindered day-to-day operations. A year after the DYS assumed control, reports persist of serious problems at some facilities that may put youths' health and safety at risk.
Faulkner County Circuit Judge Troy Braswell, who chairs the state's Youth Justice Reform Board, said the state takeover was nonetheless something of "a blessing in disguise, in that it's forcing DYS to do a better internal examination of their policies and procedures. It's forcing them to fully understand the needs that they have in all of their facilities, and understand how they're going to have to operate each one of those facilities.
"Sometimes, if somebody else has the contract ... you kind of go on and do other things and expect them to take care of it. So I think that's a healthy thing for DYS to have that internal review ... to force the light to shine in and find those areas of need."
Despite the challenges of running the facilities directly, Guhman said it would be a mistake for the agency to rush out an RFP prematurely.
"We need more information," she said. "We were afraid that if we went out for a contract right now, we would be tied in for seven years. ... We're backing off to say, 'What is it we really need for kids?'
"The people that had the contracts before had them for 20 years. We don't want to get into that again."
Braswell said he wasn't surprised that the DYS was not yet ready to issue its RFP.
"How do you contract with somebody to come in and provide services if you're not even 100 percent sure of everything you need in each different facility? So [the takeover] is forcing them to better understand what they even need from an outside provider."
Guhman said the agency is now looking for a consultant that can review the facilities, compare Arkansas with models from other states, and come up with recommendations for making a more effective system. She hopes to have the review complete by early fall.
"We can then develop a procurement that's solid and hopefully flexible. We would put that out early '19, and then it would be effective July of '19," she said.
Whenever the RFP is ready, it will likely look substantially different from the old arrangement with South Arkansas Youth Services and Consolidated Youth Services. Education, medical care and behavioral health will probably be contracted separately from management of the facilities, Guhman said.
"Those were three areas that we saw immediately that the kids were not getting the services that they needed by putting it all under one provider," she said.
Running the facilities has also convinced Guhman that the DYS needs stronger monitoring and clearer policy and standards when it finds a new provider.
"We'll be able to put that in a stronger procurement, the expectations we have. But before we put it out for them, we have to do it ourselves," she said.
Thomas Nichols, a managing attorney at the advocacy group Disability Rights Arkansas, said it was too soon to tell whether it was a positive sign that the agency had delayed its RFP.
"I think that it's up to the state to do a better job caring for these youth in these very vulnerable positions," Nichols said. DRA, which visited the facilities both before and after the takeover, has been critical of the state's management thus far — but it was also critical of the nonprofit providers.
"We ought to be able to take care of our own without having to contract out to private entities to do it for us, but it's really just going to depend on what they do with that time. ... Turning it over to somebody else might fix the broken windows at first, but those windows will end up getting broken again," " Nichols said. "If they're going to take a reasoned and cautious look at the model they're using overall, then I think that could be a good thing. But time will tell."
(This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at arknews.org.)