Some of Minnesota's most vulnerable and disruptive children still have nowhere to go after a juvenile correctional facility in northern Minnesota said it would close by the end of June.
In May, the state Department of Human Services and Hennepin and Ramsey counties pulled their kids from Mesabi Academy after concerns over treatment at the facility came out in news reports. But the decision has left case workers scrambling to find new options for the boys, which is leaving some of the toughest kids in limbo.
"That's the real story here. Where are these kids going to end up?" said Tom Roy, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
Roy said only 10 boys will be in Mesabi by the end of the week. That's down from 83 boys there in early May. Roy says Mesabi took on a tough job under one roof — treating aggressive boys who committed crimes, needed foster care or needed more treatment than their parents could provide.
The commissioner said not many facilities would not take those kids because some are too disruptive. Mesabi Academy's closure now makes placements even more difficult.
There are two main reasons choices are limited: Since there's a shortage of mental health services, there's enough demand that facilities don't have to take children who could be a challenge. And there's a shortage of facilities able to take tough kids because of the recent shift away from larger juvenile correctional facilities.
Roy even isn't certain where the counties will send the boys. "Probably a few will end up with us at Red Wing (juvenile correctional facility)," he said. "What the counties will do with the others, I wish they voluntarily will tell me what they're going to do."
Roy's comments are the first he's made since APM Reports revealed how Mesabi Academy concealed sex abuse allegations, delivered ineffective treatment programs and at times allowed an unsafe environment. Mesabi Academy, a 123-bed facility in Buhl, Minn., is licensed by the state's corrections department.
May 2: Mesabi Academy had not informed authorities about sex abuse allegations.
May 6: There are claims of maltreatment, meager staff training and inadequate programs at Mesabi Academy.
May 20: The decision to close raises questions about where troubled boys will be sent and whether the state's system is sufficient.
May 26: State, county and federal supervision didn't convey worry about Mesabi Academy.
He said he's withholding judgment on whether Mesabi Academy violated its license until St. Louis County finishes multiple maltreatment investigations.
Public records show St. Louis County has at least 14 open investigations into Mesabi Academy through May 17. Many of those cases were opened after Hennepin and Ramsey County pulled their kids and sent complaints to St. Louis County after interviewing the returning boys.
Hennepin and Ramsey — the heaviest users of Mesabi Academy — had 41 boys there in early May.
Roy said he'll hold a hearing if there are any licensing violations, a move he said that could be considered moot since the facility will close by June 30. "I have yet to come to a conclusion as to what happened at Mesabi," he said, citing the investigation. Since 2009, Mesabi had 64 complaints filed against it, far greater than its peers.
County officials are saying little about where they are placing the boys.
A spokeswoman for Hennepin County refused to discuss placements. She sent a statement saying some boys were placed on probation. Others have been transferred to other facilities but she wouldn't say if they're in Minnesota or out of state.
Ramsey County won't talk about specific cases either. Michelle Finstad, deputy director of Ramsey County Juvenile Services, is more optimistic about placements.
"There are several providers in the state as well as providers in adjacent states," she said. "As we brought children back and looked at other placement options available, there are other options available."
Because many juvenile court records are private, it's difficult to find the names and placements of children in the juvenile and foster care system. APM Reports tried to determine several placements through court records and interviews with the boys and their parents.
Many were released to their parents but will remain on probation. Others were sent to the Hennepin County Home School and the East Central Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Lino Lakes, Minn.
Some parents, however, say they're frustrated with the process and are still wondering about the fate of their children.
Here are three of their stories.
Tony Chadderdon was in Mesabi Academy because his parents placed him there July 2015. He has a traumatic brain injury that causes him to have violent outbursts. Tony's parents, Mike Chadderdon and Andrea Connell, say he can be a danger to himself and others.
But while Tony, 16, was at Mesabi, he told them he was being assaulted by other kids. When his parents complained, their objections went nowhere.
At the time, the family said they wanted to remove their son from Mesabi but there were no other places that were willing to take their son. They were waiting for the completion of a group home in Chisago County.
"There was nowhere else to go," said Mike Chadderdon. "We were both scared and talking to anyone who would listen."
For five months, the family waited for the group home to be built. If they pulled Tony out, they were told they could lose state funding for his placement into the new group home.
They said they changed their mind and took him out after reading stories by APM Reports about Mesabi Academy. Just days after that decision, Tony said he was happy to be home.
"I thought I was just going to be on a day pass. I didn't know that I was just coming home which I'm pretty happy about. I like the sight of this living room," he said.
With few options available, Tony's parents took a risk by bringing him home but they were assured a temporary group home would be ready within a week.
Three weeks later, they're still waiting and worrying.
"We're just stuck and we're hoping that it doesn't tear our family apart in the meantime," Connell said. "He doesn't have that ability to make good decisions..."
With young children in the home, Tony's parents say they have to constantly watch their son. They say he has been aggressive with his siblings and has encouraged their dog to bite a neighbor.
Connell says they were told the delay over the group home is due to licensing, employee background checks and additional mental health training for the workers.
An official with Chisago County did not return calls to discuss the case.
Ayuub Ali spent nearly a month in the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center after he was pulled from Mesabi Academy in May.
Last Friday, a judge released Ali to his father but they are still waiting for Hennepin County to determine the next placement for the 18-year-old.
Ali was at Mesabi from August until May after smoking marijuana, carrying a weapon and stealing a car.
In court, Ali's probation officer told the judge she was trying to find a new placement for him. She said a chemical dependency program in Waverly, Minn., was an option but it had a three-week waiting list. The Hennepin County Attorney's office said it wanted Ali to complete chemical dependency treatment because he was caught using marijuana during home visits from Mesabi.
Ali's lawyer, however, complained the county should have placed him by now and if it couldn't, it should let him go. "I'm extremely frustrated by this case," said Lee Kratch, a Hennepin County public defender. "This young man has been in the juvenile detention center for 28 days."
Hennepin County Judge Luis Bartolomei decided to place him on electronic home monitoring until a placement is ready. "I still have a young man in distress who can benefit from treatment," Bartolomei said from the bench.
After the hearing, Ali said he was happy to be released. He complained of physical abuse at Mesabi, information he and his father shared with St. Louis County Social Services.
After spending nine months in Mesabi, Ali says he's going to make better choices.
"I don't want to go back to a place like that. I don't want to go to prison. I kind of learned my lesson a little bit," he said. "I turned 18 and now I think about my responsibilities and how to stay on a narrow path and not to end up on a situation like that again."
Ali's father, Abdishakur Haji, isn't as confident. Haji is mad at the juvenile system and is worried about what his son will do next. He said Ali has spent time in several treatment facilities over the last few years. He said he feels helpless.
"Running behind one child, how are you going to feel? And nothing has changed. No help, no nothing. And you don't know who to ask (for help)," he said.
Haji said he has little faith in the county and the treatment programs Ali has been through. He said he believes his son needs effective mental health treatment, which he doesn't believe he's getting.
"I'm really worried. We had a big chance to help him and we couldn't," Haji said. "I wish we could help him but right now I need help. I don't think I can help him."
At a hearing in Ramsey County Juvenile Court in May, a mother anxiously waited for hours outside a courtroom to see what a judge would do with her 16-year-old son.
"This is horrible," she said.
APM Reports is not identifying the mother and her son because the boy sexually assaulted his sister. He was placed at Mesabi for 10 months in February.
She said that the first judge who saw her son didn't want to send him to Mesabi Academy due to concerns he'd heard, but a second judge ended up sending him there.
After the boy's hearing in May — which the judge closed to the media — the mother rushed to a bathroom with tears in her eyes. Unlike two other juveniles who were allowed to go home, the judge denied her request for even a two-day furlough.
It's hard to watch other parents take their sons home, she said before leaving for home.
Today the mother said the boy is getting treatment at the East Central Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Lino Lakes, Minn.
"He's now been in custody for a year. Because of the last two placements not being good, it's just a waste of his life and he has gotten no help," she said.
Despite her frustration, the boy's mom says they're hoping his third placement will be successful. She's hoping the boy will be home by the end of the year.
"He feels very comfortable at Anoka. He says the other kids there in his unit are very supportive and positive so he's looking at things as the glass is half full."
Deena Winter and Emily Haavik contributed to this report.