The decision to close Mesabi Academy raises short-term questions about where troubled boys will be sent but also longer-range questions about whether the state's system is sufficient.
The imminent closing of a juvenile treatment center on the Iron Range raises the immediate question of where dozens of Minnesota's most challenging troubled boys go now.
Judges and social service agencies throughout Minnesota and in other states already are sorting through the cases of kids being removed from the facility, Mesabi Academy in Buhl.
Most placements of juveniles are private, so it's hard to paint a complete picture of where the children are going. Some were sent home but will be monitored by probation officers. Officials in the courts and counties also say they will pursue placements in other regional treatment centers in Minnesota or in other states.
Following an APM Reports investigation into Mesabi Academy that showed leaders didn't tell authorities about abuse claims, St. Louis County is continuing investigations into at least four allegations of maltreatment, some of which emerged when other counties interviewed boys they pulled out of the facility two weeks ago.
But the action by Mesabi Academy — a center that housed 83 boys at the beginning of May and provided 123 beds — reveals what many consider a harsh longer-term reality: Minnesota doesn't have enough places to treat difficult children with mental health problems. That has led parents and social service agencies to place kids wherever they can find an opening.
"We have reached a point of demand vs. supply where we are really in a crisis mode," said Roberta Opheim, the state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities. Her role is to investigate complaints about the care and treatment people receive for mental illness, developmental disabilities, chemical dependency and other issues. Mark Haase, a juvenile justice consultant, sees a gap in the system, "particularly for kids with severe and persistent mental illness. It's not just a matter of people not wanting to treat these kids. They just don't have the space sometimes."
It comes down to money, said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota, which works on behalf of children and adults with mental illness.
Abderholden said the state, counties and private insurance companies should be spending more for treatment in residential programs. That would allow juvenile correctional facilities to hire more people to provide mental health services and allow other treatment centers to hire people who can handle physically aggressive children.
In 2015 the Legislature took steps to help children with mental illness by funding a process to build psychiatric residential treatment facilities for 150 kids. Abderholden said the facilities, which exist elsewhere but not yet in Minnesota, would be a step above the existing residential treatment centers but a step below hospital care.
She said the state also should provide earlier help to kids with mental illness. Not all schools provide those services and many that do have waiting lists. By catching problems earlier, the mental health system could reduce juvenile delinquency, she said.
Abderholden cited statistics from the National Conference of State Legislatures that say 70 percent of the kids in the juvenile justice system have one or more mental health diagnoses.
"For many years, it has been the poor kid's mental health system," she said.
The Mesabi Academy closure, scheduled for June 30, could provide impetus for a plan floated recently to build a Hennepin-Ramsey county facility to ensure children who need to be removed from their homes get adequate treatment not far away.
Until now, Mesabi Academy has offered Minnesota a solution for dealing with children who often live in the shadows and are difficult to help. They wound up there in a variety of ways, often as a last resort.
In some instances, a judge sentenced boys to the facility after they committed serious crimes, with the next stop being the corrections facility in Red Wing. County social workers placed others at Mesabi Academy because they needed protection from a parent or guardian. Sometimes parents desperate to help a physically or sexually aggressive, mentally handicapped child needed to place their child outside the home.
Nationally, there aren't many places like Mesabi Academy. APM Reports found just nine similar facilities — privately run centers for juveniles that have 90 to 150 beds, contain a secure area where kids can be locked up and accept a wide range of youth, from juvenile delinquents to private referrals to children in need of protection or services.
Some similar facilities elsewhere have closed or shrunk in recent years.
Mesabi Academy opened in 1998 as a correctional facility to bring jobs to the Iron Range by responding to an expected national increase in incarcerated youth.
But that trend faltered, and the nation's philosophy on treating juveniles changed.
Under financial pressure, Mesabi Academy changed strategies, taking on a broader spectrum of children. Still, it lost millions of dollars in recent years, even after seeking and getting financial help from elected state and federal officials.
Part of the renovated high school it uses in Buhl is a secure facility where boys can be locked up. The building also has places for boys with chemical addictions, with fire-starting tendencies, with developmental delays, with sexual issues, with behavioral problems.
A look at a year's worth of 911 calls and other state and county interactions with the facility, shows how tough the environment can be in a place with that mix of residents.
The children placed at Mesabi Academy are generally poor. They often have been rejected by or kicked out of other regional treatment centers for being too dangerous or for failing to follow the rules. In the recent past, half have been children of color.
Mental health experts in Minnesota say the state's system for treating troubled kids is thin and getting worse. And when judges, social services agencies and parents ran out of options, Mesabi Academy took kids no one else will.
Kids like Jacob Floding.
Floding, of Braham, Minn., has cerebral palsy and a brain injury stemming from his birth.
At 15, Floding started hitting people and throwing things, threatening his three younger siblings, his stepmother, Beth Floding, said. "What do you do when nobody will help you? "We called the senator (U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar), the ombudsman. We were pleading, somebody help us, help us, but nobody could."
Beth Floding said Isanti County officials told her facilities were reluctant to take him because of his disability or his aggressiveness.
The family moved the three younger children to a grandparent's home, and after Jacob stabbed her husband with a fork, Beth Floding said, he and Jacob moved into a hotel room to protect the rest of the family.
Her husband called the county, saying the situation was wrecking his family. "He said, 'This is it. I'm gonna be unemployed, jobless. I'm gonna lose everything, my family, my home.'"
Finally, the county found a place for Jacob at Mesabi Academy.
"He's not a bad kid," Floding said. "He's just a disabled kid. There's a difference."
The boy's time at Mesabi Academy was rough, according to his family and people who worked with him. When he was stressed, Jacob would gnaw on his arms. He also was subjected to attacks from another boy that twice sent him to the emergency room, his mother said.
In one instance, the other boy choked Jacob in his room. It took other children and several staffers to stop the assault. In another instance, the boy struck Jacob in the face with a broomstick.
When the family complained, it was told Mesabi Academy couldn't move the boy who assaulted Jacob because he was under a court order to stay. Employees told her he wasn't safe in the facility, she said.
Two employees, David Sainio and Caroline Mattson, stood up for her stepson, ensuring he was getting adequate treatment and protection, Floding said.
After two years, Jacob was transferred last fall to a new group home in Cambridge, Minn. Floding said she still has concerns about her stepson's treatment at Mesabi Academy but said it had been the only option.
"There's no place in the state to put kids like him," she said.
Sainio agreed. "We would get kids that would have literally no family," he said. "I would have them come up to me and say, 'Who do I call? Christmas, where do I go? I have no place to go.'"
Some employees would tell the children to call them at home. On Christmas, Sainio said, the staff would bring gifts. Sainio worked at Mesabi for seven months until September last year. He said he had philosophical differences with management but declined to comment further about his departure.
He said he loved his job because he helped challenging kids like Jacob get better. Mesabi filled a void, he said.
"Where do those kids go? They can't stay at home, can't go to a foster home, can't go to a group home, can't go to a lower level residential facility. So that's what places like Mesabi are all about," Sainio said.
In general, most kids in residential treatment centers don't need to be there, say proponents of what is called a "decarceration" movement. In 2011, 62 percent of confined youth were in for a nonviolent offense, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank that opposes youth incarceration.
"We're still locking up way too many kids," said Liz Ryan, president of Youth First Initiative. "We still lead the world in incarcerating children."
Incarceration is more expensive than community-based programs and doesn't lower recidivism, advocates say.
The number of incarcerated young people continues to drop, both in Minnesota and nationally. This week a federal study showed that the rate of incarceration for juveniles in the United States has been cut in half over the past 15 years.
But providers, including organizations like Boys Town, voice cautions about this movement. Less restrictive settings can't meet the needs of kids with severe behavioral or emotional problems, said Dan Daly, executive vice president of youth care for Boys Town, which served 32,000 youth last year, mostly in community programs.
Some kids need places like Mesabi Academy, providers say. But Daly noted the difficulty with finding good employees and other problems.
"Those small town, isolated places are the places where most of the problems occur," he said. "I think the reason is obvious: They're dealing with kids whose problems go beyond the (norm)."
In 2011, Mesabi Academy said it was trying to reinvent itself to adjust to a different way of thinking. In a letter to the Department of Corrections, then-Executive Director Karen Moller said it was focusing more on a "therapeutic model" instead of a corrections-based model.
"The first and most significant change was moving from the idea that clients were sent for punishment, to the idea that clients were sent for treatment," Moller wrote.
But earlier this year, Anne Busche, the recently retired director of St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services, wrote to APM Reports in an email that Mesabi Academy maintained a correctional model, not appropriate for children in need of protective services.
A year in the life of Mesabi Academy
Deena Winter, Emily Haavik and Will Craft contributed to this report.
APM Reports investigation and response
May 2, 2016. APM Reports publishes story that says Mesabi Academy had not informed authorities about sex abuse allegations it learned of.
May 2, 2016. St. Louis County immediately reopens an investigation it had closed earlier.
May 5, 2016. Ramsey County says it is freezing at least some placements at the facility.
May 6, 2016. APM Reports publishes a story detailing claims of maltreatment at Mesabi Academy.
May 6, 2016. Hennepin County responds by removing 20 boys from the facility.
May 9, 2016. Ramsey County removes 21 boys from Mesabi Academy.
May 10, 2016. Minnesota's Department of Human Services removes five boys under its jurisdiction.
May 11, 2016. Iron Range lawmaker says counties are overreacting.
May 12, 2016. Department of Corrections says Mesabi Academy has agreed to freeze admissions.
May 19, 2016. Mesabi Academy's parent company announces plans to close the facility.