Hennepin County officials said Friday they're removing 20 children from a juvenile correctional facility on the Iron Range — Mesabi Academy — that's been the subject of two investigative news reports this week. The children were put into vans and driven back to the Twin Cities late in the day.
The county said in a written statement it was ordering the immediate return of the Hennepin County youth into Hennepin County custody. "Hennepin County and the Fourth Judicial District Court are aware of the concerns raised about Mesabi. At this time, Hennepin County and the Fourth Judicial District believe this decision is in the best interest of these youth from Hennepin County," the statement said.
Ramsey County said earlier this week that it is putting a moratorium on placing any more children in need of protection in the facility. The county's probation department is also reviewing the 21 boys who are there because they were sent there by a judge after committing criminal activity. Late Friday a spokesman said they are "preparing for the possibility that we will be transferring multiple youth into other programs in the days ahead."
Both moves come after APM Reports, American Public Media's investigative and documentary unit, reported that Mesabi Academy in Buhl, Minn., didn't alert St. Louis County authorities to three allegations of sex abuse last year. Hennepin County officials also were critical of the effectiveness of Mesabi's programming and treatment. Some former workers described a chaotic environment at Mesabi.
A spokesman didn't say if other counties have told Mesabi they'd be removing children.
Hennepin County has 16 juvenile delinquents and four children at Mesabi placed through the human services department. Margaret Daly, presiding judge of juvenile court in Hennepin County, and more than a dozen Hennepin and Ramsey County officials, were scheduled to visit the facility today, but she and the judges opted against the visit, agreeing with county probation to remove the kids.
The decision by Hennepin County will cause a financial hit to Mesabi Academy, a privately run facility that was formed in 1998 by Pennsylvania-based KidsPeace. Hennepin County is one of Mesabi Academy's biggest customers, currently occupying about a quarter of the 83 residents placed at the facility this week. It has 123 beds.
KidsPeace released a written statement that said it believes that it provides a safe and caring environment.
"We absolutely reject any allegation or insinuation that our dedicated and incredibly hard-working staff has acted in any way against the well-being of youth in our care, or that anyone associated with Mesabi Academy does not have the safety of these young people as their highest priority," wrote Robert Martin, a KidsPeace spokesman. He said they're willing to continue discussions with Hennepin County.
In written responses this week to questions from APM Reports, Mesabi Academy said that it believes it has followed all applicable laws related to the child protection investigation in St. Louis County.
Jeff Rasmussen is a retired disposition adviser in the Hennepin County Public Defender's Office. His role was to advocate on behalf of the juvenile delinquents in the county that were placed in correctional facilities and residential treatment centers. Rasmussen said he's been raising concerns about Mesabi Academy to the courts and county corrections since the facility first opened in 1998.
He said he's glad the county decided to pull the kids out of the facility. Rasmussen said he thinks they'll be better off in a different facility. "For the kids to be in a safer place, a more professional place, a more humane place, will be a good improvement in their lives and the things that have happened in the program was not their fault," he said. "Adults should have taken sooner responsibility for that."