Updated: May 11, 8:54 a.m. | Posted: May 10, 6:44 p.m.
For the first time since news reports chronicled problems at a juvenile correctional facility on the Iron Range, the state is taking action against the facility.
Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper said Tuesday she was removing five children from Mesabi Academy. Those children, considered "wards of the state" because they have no parent or guardian to represent them, are Piper's responsibility. She said she was taking action because she believed it was in the best interests of the boys.
Piper also told five other states and the District of Columbia who may have boys at the facility that she was taking action.
"I was very concerned about the allegations that were made related to the treatment of children there," Piper said. "My job is to do right by these kids, and to stand in the shoes essentially of their parents and their guardians. So from that lens, I made the decision that these kids should be moved elsewhere."
Piper said she thought that the state had oversight for seven boys at Mesabi Academy but that two of them were removed after Hennepin and Ramsey counties pulled 45 kids from the facility in the past week.
Boys are sent to Mesabi Academy in several ways. Juvenile delinquents are sent by courts, other vulnerable children in need of protection are sent by county social services agencies, and sometimes parents and guardians send kids who they can't deal with at home. The Department of Human Services has oversight for children sent there without any other legal guardian.
Piper said she was taking the action after APM Reports, American Public Media's investigations and documentaries group, reported Mesabi Academy didn't report allegations of abuse to authorities. The reports cited critics who complained about the effectiveness of the treatment in the facility. Piper also said she gathered input from Hennepin and Ramsey County officials, who interviewed their children about the facility in the past week.
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Piper said she was working with the counties to determine the best option to find new placements "as soon as they possibly can for these kids."
The Human Services Department also notified the District of Columbia and five states — Virginia, South Dakota, North Dakota, Hawaii and Montana — about the decision to pull the kids from Mesabi, and it notified the states about an investigation into the facility.
Officials from those states had notified the department under an interstate agreement that they had placed children at Mesabi Academy. Piper said she wasn't sure how many children were placed there by the other states.
The 123-bed facility is licensed by the Minnesota Department of Corrections. A spokeswoman for the department didn't return messages. The department released a statement last week saying it was reviewing the findings and recommendations of St. Louis County child protection, which is currently investigating alleged maltreatment at Mesabi Academy.
In addition to the action by Hennepin and Ramsey counties in the past week, an official with Clay County announced that it is removing three children from the facility.
It isn't certain how many children are still housed at Mesabi Academy. A spokesman for the facility last week said 83 boys were residents, but that was before the state and counties removed placements accounting for more than half that number.
The spokesman said Wednesday morning that the facility has made no adjustments to its staff level in the wake of the county and state actions. He said the company had "not been told of any specific reason or factor that led (the state) to this decision, nor have we received any specific feedback from either Hennepin or Ramsey counties on the reasons why they relocated kids placed at Mesabi."
The spokesman, Robert Martin, said the company believes it is providing a "safe and appropriate environment."