Jacob Torblaa was a troubled kid.
At 15, he showed signs of schizophrenia and stopped communicating with his mother, Lisa. He started pushing and grabbing at her in their Lake Park, Minn., home.
She started him in therapy and tried residential facilities for help. He ran away.
Lisa Torblaa turned to her son's mental health case manager in Becker County, who tried placing Jacob in several treatment centers. Only one would take him: Mesabi Academy in Buhl, on Minnesota's Iron Range.
"He just thought this was a good place for him and our only shot because nobody else would accept Jacob with his disabilities," Lisa said.
On April, 7, 2014, Torblaa, then 17, walked through the doors of Mesabi Academy, a private 123-bed treatment facility licensed by the Minnesota Department of Corrections. He had never been convicted of an offense.
When he entered, Torblaa was diagnosed with schizophrenia and had an IQ of 68 (1), a sign of limited mental ability. Jacob's family and therapists hoped Mesabi Academy would help him get better.
He got worse.
At first, Jacob was alert and talkative, his mother said. But he deteriorated quickly. He attacked employees and classmates; he made inappropriate comments; he rubbed his feces on the walls.
Mesabi's psychiatrist increased his dosage of antipsychotic medications to a level that worried his mother. "He was not alert to what was going on," Lisa Torblaa said. "He was drooling and had enormous tremors."
Jacob told her he thought he was going to die. She discounted the idea, yet she "just got that gut feeling that something's wrong."
Then in January last year, when she took her son on an overnight visit, her worry turned to anger.
As they were getting ready to go swimming, Lisa saw red marks on her son's back. Jacob told her that two employees punched him and whipped him with a restraining belt. He repeated the statement to police after his mother called to complain.
"Honestly if I hadn't had him overnight and we did not go swimming I wouldn't have known," she said. "Because he was not going to tell me."
Less than two months later, Mesabi Academy transferred Jacob to a hospital for psychiatric care, saying it could no longer manage him.
Mesabi Academy houses some of the toughest juvenile cases in Minnesota. Opened in 1998 and seen primarily as an economic development project on the Iron Range, it has been home to murderers, rapists, car thieves, drug dealers and fire starters. It also houses vulnerable children in need of protection from parents or guardians. In addition, parents like Lisa Torblaa opt to place mentally challenged children there when they can no longer handle them.
In interviews with scores of current and former employees, county and state officials and parents and guardians and through an examination of seldom-viewed state and county records, APM Reports discovered other troubling incidents, practices and treatments, not unlike Jacob's.
One boy who wanted to be discharged from the facility tried to commit suicide. A staffer, frustrated that a disabled boy soiled himself and wasn't willing to take a shower, allegedly dumped cold water over him while other boys laughed.
Officials have expressed concern over the use of mechanical restraints in the facility. Former workers say training is inadequate and there is a history of ignoring complaints. And attorneys representing juveniles sent to Mesabi Academy said the facility's treatment plans were often identical, leading to worries children are being "warehoused."
Workers who care for the treatment of Minnesota's at-risk youth say Mesabi Academy is a place of last resort — especially for children who are often forgotten by the system. The children who end up at Mesabi are often mentally ill, poor, homeless or orphaned.
Many boys are sent there by Hennepin and Ramsey county courts and social services agencies.
"When youth are concerned about safety and when staff are felt to be unhappy or not supported, it reduces the effectiveness of treatment programs in some facilities," said Keith Cruise, an assistant professor of psychology at Fordham University in New York.
On Monday, APM Reports published a story revealing that leaders at Mesabi Academy hadn't reported alleged incidents of maltreatment and abuse to county authorities, perpetuating a culture of keeping those claims quiet. It also reported that the facility had generated far more complaints to the Minnesota Department of Corrections than any other youth treatment facility the department licenses.
Mesabi Academy and its parent company, the Pennsylvania nonprofit KidsPeace, operate under the motto of "providing hope, help and healing to children, families and communities," but some advocates for the youth are questioning whether Mesabi Academy is providing acceptable, safe care.
Officials at KidsPeace Mesabi Academy issued a statement Monday saying it had followed all applicable laws. It had earlier agreed to an interview in Buhl but canceled it after the APM Reports story Monday. On Thursday, the company provided answers to some specific questions via email.
The APM Reports story prompted St. Louis County to reopen an investigation into a sex abuse allegation. And the Department of Corrections said it is reviewing reports that Mesabi officials didn't immediately report allegations of misconduct to authorities. State law generally requires care providers to report such allegations to county child protective services or law enforcement within 24 hours of being told about them.
KidsPeace training and policies emphasize that employees have a responsibility to report to their superiors situations they feel aren't right, the company said in its email.
"We also note that unless we witness an incident or have it reported to us by staff, youth, security personnel or the authorities, we can't engage our process to investigate and correct it," KidsPeace spokesman Bob Martin wrote.
Ramsey County officials said Thursday they plan to freeze placements at Mesabi Academy from their Child Protective Services office. They are reviewing the cases involving their corrections department. Hennepin County is also reviewing their placements at the facility.
Earlier this week, Ramsey County said it had 25 boys at the facility. Hennepin County reported having 20 boys there this week. KidsPeace said that, in all, the facility has 52 delinquents and 31 social services placements at Mesabi Academy.
David Cope, who worked at Mesabi Academy from 2004 to 2009, said he was fired after refusing to fill another employee's shift. Today he works in the human services department for the Fond Du Lac tribe in Minnesota.
He said he discourages other social service workers from sending children to Mesabi Academy. "If you like the kid, don't send them. If you don't like them, send them," he recalls telling one who asked about the facility.
Out of Mesabi, Jacob improves
Jacob Torblaa's case file from Mesabi Academy characterized him as having significant aggression, at times experiencing 30 violent episodes a day. Staffers said he was a "handful." Some called him "Jacobstein" because the 6-foot-1-inch boy moved slowly and would telegraph an aggressive move toward staff.
To reduce his attacks and stabilize him, Jacob's psychiatrist at Mesabi Academy, Dr. Gregory Bambenek, increased the level of anti-psychotic medications, his mother said. Jacob entered Mesabi on two medicines but eventually was taking five, according to his case summary.
Lisa Torblaa wanted him out. Her county's social worker, though, said that his aggressive behavior still posed a risk to his two younger siblings at home.
She insisted on speaking daily to her son by phone, even though Mesabi Academy's rules limit calls to a few times a week. She also made the 3 1/2-hour drive from her northwestern Minnesota home at least three weekends a month.
At times, she said, Jacob would just lie on the couch during visits. "I would hold him and he would sleep the entire visit."
When she saw the marks on her son's back in January 2015, Lisa Torblaa contacted Mesabi Academy to complain, and an employee reported the matter to the St. Louis County sheriff. (2)
Jacob Torblaa told investigators that two staffers attacked him and hit him with a belt. "I have to believe my son," his mother said. "Why would he be there all that time and then just say this?"
Both staffers denied to sheriff's investigators that they had hit Jacob. They said the boy injured himself when he was put into restraints after acting out.
The sheriff's office closed the case for lack of evidence 18 days after it was opened. Investigator Mark Steel said the marks could have been caused when Jacob was put in restraints, noting in his report that there were no witnesses.
When a witness did come forward in April 2016, the case was reopened but closed a second time, because no documentation or evidence supported the allegation. APM Reports is not naming the employees because they weren't charged.
Lisa Torblaa said she didn't believe the timing of her son's departure from Mesabi was coincidental. During his time there, she said Mesabi Academy officials repeatedly assured her that her son could stay at the facility until he turned 21.
She said she was surprised when they discharged him in March 2015, less than a month after the sheriff's department closed the case.
Dosages lowered, Jacob back home
The doctor who saw Jacob after he was discharged, said the boy was not thinking or communicating clearly.
Dr. Steven Miller, a psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, said Jacob Torblaa's case plan showed he had a history of aggression. But Miller said he didn't see that during two months of treatment.
"The time we had with Jacob here in the hospital was very reassuring," Miller said. "He didn't have any aggression, was calm and polite."
The doctor said he evaluated the medications that Jacob was taking and decided to reduce the medicines and the dosages.
"It's hard to put myself in exactly those shoes and judge those decisions," Miller said. "When he came into our hospital it seemed like a change of course was needed with medicines and the changes we made ended up working out really well."
Today Jacob lives with his mother and his siblings. He participates in weekly bowling events with the Becker County Development Achievement Center, watches sports on TV and bakes. His mother said she's relieved her son is doing better and living back at home.
"I can't imagine what Jacob went through when he trusted me as a parent," Lisa Torblaa said. "I feel like I failed him. I couldn't keep him safe. I trusted the county, I trusted that facility to keep my child safe."
KidsPeace said in an email Thursday that privacy laws and regulations prevented it from commenting on details of a boy's placement and treatment.
Carpenter leads group sessions
Mesabi Academy is considered a rough place. Many employees say they are constantly breaking up fights and redirecting boys looking for trouble.
State law allows facilities licensed by the Department of Corrections — like Mesabi Academy — to accept kids who have never been charged with an offense.
Last year, about 40 percent of Mesabi's beds were filled with such "non-delinquent" kids coming through the child protection foster care system or those like Jacob Torblaa, voluntarily sent by parents.
The others are delinquents sent by juvenile courts, and recidivism is one measure of Mesabi Academy's success in helping those boys. Hennepin County, for example, pays Mesabi a $5,000 bonus for each boy who stays out of trouble for a year after discharge. Between 2010 and 2014, Mesabi won the bonus for 11 former residents — fewer than a quarter of those eligible.
Employees paint a picture of an often-chaotic environment where kids are disruptive, get in fights with each other and behave aggressively toward staff.
"There were evenings where it felt like you were just running around the building from Level 2 to Level 2 to Level 2," said David Bard, who worked there for 18 months, using the facility's shorthand for a fight or other physical altercation. "It was just constant crisis mode."
Bard held two positions at Mesabi Academy between July 2012 and January 2014: case manager and alternative services counselor. He said most of the kids placed at Mesabi have had rough childhoods.
Mary Moriarty, chief public defender in Hennepin County, said her office has been raising concerns about Mesabi Academy for years and has looked at case plans for the children Hennepin's courts have placed there. The county is the biggest source of residents, placing 47 boys at the facility in 2015.
Moriarty said a review of 26 case plans showed all included boilerplate language. "The case plans were like they'd substituted a different kid's name into the same case plan. It was obvious," she said.
Moriarty also said her staff had concerns that some workers did not have sufficient training or support to deal with children who experienced trauma or who acted out aggressively. Moriarty said she believes Mesabi Academy ends up "warehousing" the kids instead of giving them specialized treatment.
The company said individual case plans are prepared for each resident when he arrives, derived from a number of assessments and screenings, it said. The company also said it conducts monthly audits to confirm that they are documented appropriately.
KidsPeace said that in response to Hennepin County and others, it changed the way residents move through Mesabi Academy programs and have trained employees more completely. Employees meet state requirements for working in the facility, the company said. That includes two weeks of training before they are assigned to a shift and additional training on a regular basis.
Hennepin County officials, including judges, social services workers, corrections, public defenders and county attorneys are traveling to Buhl today to visit Mesabi Academy. The meeting was scheduled months ago after a judge and public defenders raised questions about the treatment of boys in the facility. After the APM Reports story, two Ramsey County judges decided to join them.
The level of training at Mesabi surprised even some employees.
Bob Powers worked there for seven months last year. A carpenter by training, Powers said he was surprised when Mesabi Academy hired him as a client care counselor, a position involving direct support to boys.
Powers, who worked in a unit that provides chemical dependency services to boys, said he was shocked when directed to discuss those issues with the kids. Despite a lack of formal training, Powers said he was handed a three-ring binder and told to lead group programs.
"I was wondering, 'Am I just here to get fired? Why am I in here doing this?'" he said. "Every day I do their treatment programs, and in my head, I'm going, 'This is insane.'"
KidsPeace said it has not heard of any situation where a client care counselor would have been directed to conduct group sessions.
Another employee, Emily Buchanan, who worked on the sex offender unit in 2011 and 2012, said sometimes not enough counselors were available. She said kids would ask to speak with a counselor about an issue and have to wait.
"There were times it could be up to a week before they'd be able to see their counselor," she said.
KidsPeace said it averages one staff member to six young people during waking hours, exceeding state and federal requirements. It also said it conducts extensive orientation and training for all employees. The company also said residents see psychologists as needed for crisis management, suicide assessment and psychological testing.
Among numerous interviews, some people did have good things to say about Mesabi Academy's programming. One was Brandon Christenson. He spent six months there last year after spending time in at least a half dozen residential treatment centers around Minnesota and North Dakota.
He said Mesabi was the one that turned his life around. "It was an amazing experience," said Christenson, who lives in Grand Forks, N.D. "They taught me so much while I was there. And honestly, I don't know if I would be able to make it to where I am without them, because they taught me such good life lessons."
Concern about restraints
Hennepin County officials' visit to Mesabi Academy today will also include a broader discussion over the use of mechanical restraints on children.
In November, Mesabi Academy employees transferred a boy to juvenile court in handcuffs even though the boy was placed there in need of protection and had never been convicted of an offense.
The county sent Mesabi Academy a strongly worded letter (3) directing that social services residents can be transported to Hennepin County in handcuffs, but may not enter the building in handcuffs.
Mesabi Academy has agreed to change its practice.
The seven largest juvenile residential treatment centers licensed by the Minnesota Department of Corrections
|MN Correctional Facility, Red Wing||189||2||State|
|Hennepin Co. Home School, Minnetonka||184||0||County|
|Mesabi Academy, Buhl||123||64||Private non-profit|
|Woodland Hills Residential Treatment Center, Duluth||84||3||Private non-profit|
|Northwestern MN Juvenile Facility, Bemidji||65||3||County|
|Boys Totem Town, St. Paul||56||1||County|
|Anoka County Juvenile Center, Lino Lakes||50||0||County|
Mesabi Academy has faced earlier allegations that some staff mistreated youth.
"I felt that they swept a lot of things under the rug," said Trish Pylkka, who worked there between 2010 and 2012.
She said she anonymously filed complaints with St. Louis County Child Protection after management appeared not to take action.
Pylkka reported that she saw an employee dump cold water on a disabled boy. She said the employee became upset when the 11-year-old soiled his pants and wouldn't take a shower. The employee started pouring pitchers of ice cold water on the boy and told other boys on the unit to get more water, she said.
The boy "was screaming and crying," Pylkka said. "The other kids on the unit were, of course, laughing and teasing, and the staff was laughing right along with him."
Pylkka said she told the employee to stop and leave the unit and then reported the matter to her superiors. After she realized no one had disciplined the employee, Pylkka said, she made an anonymous complaint to social services. APM Reports is not naming the employee because he wasn't charged with a crime.
Pylkka said her superiors eventually found out she was the one complaining. Soon after, she was demoted and criticized for how she wrote her reports, she said. She later quit.
KidsPeace said it had no record of the incident.
Many of the people who worked directly with the kids, known as client care counselors, said they were also told not to communicate with the parents or guardians of children placed in the facility.
Other workers said they were told to limit the amount of information they filed in incident and shift reports. It was characterized as "creative writing," by one supervisor.
"Don't be detailed, just put the bare-bones facts on. Just get enough for the report to go through," said Todd Wilman, who worked at Mesabi Academy for 13 years. "If it's reported, they will take care of it on their side. They'll decide what gets out to the public."
Some of those complaints and incidents, however, were filed with the Minnesota Department of Corrections by parents, residents, law enforcement, employees and Mesabi itself.
Since Mesabi Academy opened in 1998, there were 83 reports of serious resident injuries, 36 complaints of threats or abuse and 20 attempted suicides, according to data collected by the department.
One former resident at Mesabi, who asked not to have his name used to keep his mental health issues private, attempted suicide during his time there.
The man, now 22, said he suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, depression and reactive attachment disorder. He said he wanted to get out of Mesabi so badly that he drank cleaning solution.
"If it's as bad as I just told you, which it is, you're going to do whatever it takes to get out, because you feel that it's not safe," the former resident said during an interview in a Twin Cities library.
The incident, in 2010, was the second recorded in data supplied by the Department of Corrections in which a Mesabi resident had ingested a cleaning product.
KidsPeace said, "Threats and attempts at suicide are sadly common among youth facing mental and behavioral challenges like our clients at Mesabi. We have a clinician, nurse and administrator on call to support supervisors and direct care staff."
The company said it uses cleaning products made for facilities like Mesabi Academy not to be harmful if ingested. Employees transported the two boys to the hospital "to make sure they were unharmed." It said allegations of maltreatment by St. Louis County were withdrawn.
The man, placed there by his county's social services agency, said his case manager eventually removed him from Mesabi.
The man also complained about the number of medications he was prescribed. He said he was given what seemed like a handful of pills four times a day. "They treat you like a lab rat," he said. "They tried so many [drugs] together that I was just zoned out."
Two other parents of children placed there say they were told about changes in drug regimens only after they occurred.
Psychiatrist hunts for Bigfoot
Mesabi Academy's contract psychiatrist is a colorful character.
Gregory Bambenek, who operates a Duluth clinic, has made national news for his product, Dr. Juice, a pheromone spray that is billed to help catch fish. (4)
Bambenek's work with pheromones also launched him on the TV show, MonsterQuest, on the History Channel.(5) In several episodes, Bambenek helps believers try to track and find Bigfoot, the mythical human-ape figure said by some to inhabit a variety of American forests.
The doctor uses a mix of scent spray, sounds and other devices to search for the creature. By the end of every episode, he and others have failed to come up with any proof Bigfoot exists.
"Maybe we didn't come up with the creature right here, but this shows the kind of research that we have to do to gather more information, more data for that file so that mainstream science is going to take a look at this," Bambenek says at the end of one 2007 episode, "Swamp Beast."
Mesabi Academy's 2013 tax form shows it paid Bambenek's clinic $100,748. He did not return calls to discuss his work at Mesabi Academy. He is licensed in Minnesota and Wisconsin. There is no record of disciplinary actions against him.
Mesabi Academy's parent, KidsPeace, lists four psychiatrists in its 2014 tax returns who make more than $300,000 annually. The company operates a psychiatric hospital, a residential treatment center, community-based services and foster care in Pennsylvania.
The company didn't answer questions about how it evaluates Bambenek's medical care at Mesabi Academy.
Deena Winter, Emily Haavik and Will Craft contributed to this report.