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Mecklenburg juvenile detention center’s closing separates families, burdens other facilities

Lisa Worf
Annie Houston and her family went to the Mecklenburg juvenile detention center in October to visit her grandson. He's now at a state facility 90 minutes away in Morganton.

Until recently, about 55 teenagers were typically confined at a juvenile detention center in north Charlotte. About 40 of them were from Mecklenburg County. They were close to their lawyers, the court system and family.

Annie Houston, of Charlotte, routinely visited her 15-year-old grandson there, as she did on a Sunday morning in October. She’s dressed for church later that morning, wearing a purple dress and a sparkling cross around her neck.

“He always says, ‘Oh, Grandma, say a prayer for me.’ I say, ‘I always say a prayer for you,’” said Houston.

Her grandson, D.C., has spent about a year in juvenile detention. Houston tries to visit a couple of times a month, encouraging him to sing and rap.

“It's like some stuff I don't like and I say, ‘You know what, hit me a lyric with a little bit of gospel in it.’ So he sung a song one day and I say, ‘Now I can relate to that song right there,’” said Houston.

She meets her son, Wayne Stover, and his wife in the detention center’s parking lot. He’s brought along two of his other kids to see their brother — one is 14 and the other is six months old. They hurry inside to make the most of their time together.

Two weeks later, D.C. was sent to another juvenile facility about an hour and a half away in Morganton. The relocation of D.C. and everyone else housed in the juvenile detention center was necessary because it officially shuts down today.

Separating teens from their families

WayneStover - JuvenileDetention
Lisa Worf
Wayne Stover holds photos of his son who is now confined at a juvenile facility in Morganton about 90 minutes away.

Most of the teenagers went to a state facility in Concord, but some were sent to one near Wilmington, more than three hours away. That makes visits hard, if not impossible, for many families.

Stover said he can’t visit D.C. as much in Morganton. He worries what that means for his son.

D.C. is a loving child, Stover says, but worries he’ll turn into “an explosive bomb” at times without as many family visits.

Mecklenburg County didn’t have a juvenile detention center from 2010 to 2019. The county closed it to save money during the recession, as the number of juveniles in custody was declining statewide.

But it reopened when North Carolina’s Raise the Age law took effect, which treats 16- and 17-year-olds as juveniles for most crimes. Anticipating more teenagers at its juvenile facilities, the state contracted with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office to operate one at Jail North. State and local officials saw it as a good deal because it kept teenagers close to home in a facility that had space for a library and school.

Sheriff Garry McFadden decided to close the juvenile detention center, in part, to help bulk up staffing at its adult jail uptown. A year ago, a state inspector said the staffing shortage posed “an imminent threat” to safety.

The state tried negotiating with the county to keep it open at least until August 2023, when three more juvenile facilities are expected to open. The closest one will be in Richmond County, about 90 minutes east of Charlotte.

State officials offered to buy Jail North from the county. They also offered to lease the building and operate the juvenile detention center. But McFadden saidthat would mean the state would be competing for staff from the same pool as the sheriff’s office. He said he needed them at the jail for adults uptown.

Sixty officers from the juvenile detention center now work at the jail. A number did apply for, and were offered positions, at other juvenile facilities. But, according to the NC Department of Public Safety, none accepted because Mecklenburg County pays $15,000-20,000 more than the state pays.

Lisa Worf
The Mecklenburg juvenile detention center is now closed and teenagers from Mecklenburg County are spread throughout facilities across the state.

Mecklenburg Chief District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch said there doesn’t seem to be the will or creativity to find an alternative arrangement that helps kids.

“I think (the closure) is going to delay successful transitions into the community for kids who really don't belong in the detention center,” Trosch said.

Cost was another reason McFadden shut down the facility. He and county staff estimate it will save $6.6 million this year at a time when the county needs to plug a big budget hole from losing so many federal detainees following the state inspector’s report.

Trosch doesn’t buy it.

“I think it's going to extend the number of days kids are in detention, and I think that it's frankly going to cost us a lot more money,” she said.

Separating teenagers from services

Trosch has seen the difference a connection to a safe, supportive adult can have in a child’s outcome. She says losing that, in many cases, will be the biggest impact of the center’s closure, but there are other factors to worry about, too.

“I think, fundamentally, the absence of a detention center in Mecklenburg County creates disconnection,” said Trosch.

That includes, she says, disconnection from family, the community, school, court counselors and services they need.

From the representation angle, lawyer Chiegu Kalu Okwara liked having the juvenile detention center close because she could check on her clients frequently.

“You build rapport, you build trust. They're also kids. The more they see, the more you explain to them, the more you break it down to them, the more they understand the system,” said Okwara.

She used to set aside two hours and see up to eight teenagers at the detention center on one visit. Now they’re spread across the state, greatly limiting her contact.

“They're very anxious. You reassure them. You play that role. We can’t be there to do that like we normally would because that's the distance,” said Okwara.

Separating teens from a support network

Teenagers in detention must routinely attend court hearings to determine if they should remain in custody and, if not, figure out what it would take to release them with a support network in place so they can be successful.

“They need to know that just because what you did doesn't make you. You're still a human. You made a mistake,” said Eric Stokes, one of many community members who would regularly go to the detention center to encourage the teenagers.

Lisa Worf
Eric Stokes runs a boxing academy at a gym. He used to regularly visit the Mecklenburg juvenile detention center to encourage teenagers there. He hopes to keep in touch with them now that they're scattered throughout the state.

Stokes runs a boxing academy at a gym. He’d go with a friend who did time in a federal prison to convince the teens they could still move forward and make a difference. Sometimes he’d bring an athlete.

“They're missing somebody that shows them that they love them and are going to hold them accountable. They show me the utmost respect. Every time I went in there, those kids showed me the utmost respect,” said Stokes.

Stokes, like many of these community mentors, hopes to be there for them when they get out — and prevent them from going back to the same environment.

He’s spoken with a few teenagers after their transfers. He says they seem to be adjusting well. But he wonders about one boy he had a particularly close bond with. Like Stokes, he lost two brothers to gun violence. Stokes talked to him right before he was sent away.

“He was nervous about the move. But I told him, ‘No matter where you are, you just go in there and you respect yourself and you respect everything around you. And you make sure, number one, you keep that relationship with God,” said Stokes.

Stokes told the teen that he’d be there every step of the way. But he hasn’t been able to track down where he is yet.

The impact on teenagers in facilities across the state

The Mecklenburg juvenile detention center was the largest in the state, accommodating up to 72 teenagers. That makes up about one-fifth of the state’s total capacity. William Lassiter oversees juvenile justice for the Department of Public Safety. He says finding additional room with only six months notice is proving a huge hardship.

“That means juveniles sleeping on dayroom floors. It means that we have the possibility of double-bunking juveniles, which we try to heavily avoid so that they don't get into fights with each other or harm each other,” said Lassiter.

Lassiter notes that all of this comes at a time when juvenile detention centers, like adult jails, are struggling with staffing. He says the juvenile centers are trying to make do with only half the staff needed.

The Department of Public Safety has had about 25 staff from its central office volunteer in facilities to ease the load. Some court counselors, who usually work with juveniles in the community, are now assigned to detention centers. He says the state still wants to work with the county to make sure those teenagers are better prepared to re-enter their communities.

WFAE's Sarah Delia contributed to this report.

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Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.