Archived Story

A look inside the Berrien County Juvenile Center

Published 4:16pm Friday, July 30, 2010


Niles Daily Star

It’s a typical weekday afternoon in July, and the temperature has risen into the high 80s. Most kids who are enjoying a summer break from school are likely to be found outside or in movie theaters, with friends at the mall or playing video games in the comfort of their own rooms.

Inside one of the community rooms at the Berrien County Juvenile Center, there are a couple of kids playing video games, a couple of others are engaged in a game of ping-pong and a few others are gathered around a television watching a movie.

It takes just a few minutes for one of the residents at this center — sentenced to stay here as part of the center’s residential treatment program by the family court — to whisper “social skills.”

Almost immediately, the group of nearly a dozen teenage residents approach their guest, stick out their hand and introduce themselves before going back to what they were doing.

“We are very clinically oriented,” director Richard Dama said.

This 42-bed facility has been housing juveniles in one of its three detention programs since 1974, and in that time has received national recognition for its treatment and operational programs.

Juveniles who are sent here are either held in secure detention, alternative detention or, following a sentencing from the family court, residential treatment.

Each program incorporates education, counseling and mental health services, recreational programs and visitation.

Inside the center, hallways are muted, furniture is basic — plastic molded chairs and tables, beds that are molded to the walls and the floor so they may not be moved — tear-resistant blankets and gowns on hand for those juveniles who may be deemed a danger to themselves.

Intercoms are installed in each room so those lodged at the center can make contact with personnel. Doors are kept locked. For those on suicide watch — checked physically by staff every 15 minutes — rooms are fitted with cameras.

Still, it’s not all brick walls and the bare minimum. There are two community rooms — one in each the residential and detention wings. Juveniles can watch movies. In one room there is a foosball table and in another, a Nintendo Wii.

Classrooms are often occupied during the school year, where teachers from the Berrien Regional Education Service Agency provide instruction. There is a gymnasium that gives those youth at the center a chance to get rid of some of their pent up energy, Dama said, an a cafeteria as muted as the hallways, small and somewhat confined.

It is notably quiet in the hallways.

Still, the center’s director does not focus on what leads members of Berrien County’s youth to the intake rooms of the center pending their respective hearings.

“We’re not in the punishment business,” Dama said. “We’re in the restorative justice business.”

Mental health and emotional services are a big part of the center’s program as well.

“We go to great lengths not to criminalize mental illness,” Dama said. “So we determine that the youngster’s criminal activities are a result of a psychological condition,” officials will address those findings with the court and services are offered at the center.

Private rooms are also available for juveniles to speak with their counselors or mental health physicians. Those rooms are monitored through video but not audio.

He is proud of the center’s mission statement, which is “to have a significant, positive and corrective impact upon the youth in our care. In so doing, we contribute to the court’s efforts to serve and protect the public by providing temporary care and custody, crisis intervention and other helpful services to pre-adjudicated and post-adjudicated youth, with a sensitivity to the special needs of these individuals and their families.”

The juveniles who find themselves on the inside of the center could be there for any number of accusations, whether shoplifting, gang-related crime, possession of illegal drugs or even as in the case of current resident Dakotah Eliason, open murder. The 14-year-old from Niles is charged with allegedly shooting his grandfather, Jesse Miles, in March.

It is Eliason’s case that has brought some attention to the center and just how it works. And it has brought attention to concerns of some that those juveniles accused of major dangerous crimes are house in the same facility of those who are being dealt with for lesser offenses.

Since being lodged at the center, following the death of Miles, Eliason’s behavior at the juvenile center has been touched upon in and out of court.

Part of the center’s program includes rewarding juveniles with coupons or special privileges — such as allowing family to bring in outside food during visits — for good behavior.

“They do provide certain incentives,” Berrien County Prosecutor Art Cotter said. Asked about the issue regarding Eliason, who is charged as an adult for open murder yet housed with other juveniles, Cotter said the situation is unique.

It should be noted that no juvenile being lodged at the center, whether in secure or alternative detention or residential treatment, shares a room with another. Rooms consist of one bed, a toilet and in some cases, a desk and chair.

Because of Eliason’s age, he is being held at the juvenile center, and “you have to keep them sight and sound separate” from adults, Cotter said.

Things could change depending on whether or not Eliason is found guilty of an adult charge.

Cotter said in regard to tconcerns someone who could be capable of such an extreme crime as murder would be in contact with others: “Even in the (adult) jail, he’s going to be with other people.”

Dama said those sentenced by family court to the residential treatment are taught as “part of that restorative justice, is learning how to be a responsible citizen, which we believe involves giving back to the community, so we do a lot of community activity work.”

Projects include helping out at the Berrien County Youth Fair fairgrounds, Adopt-A-Highway and community park cleanup.

“Upper level youngsters,” as graded through a level and point system at the center, are those who are eligible to take part in such projects.

Currently in secure detention, Eliason is not eligible to leave the facility, Cotter said.

It is policy at the juvenile center, Dama said, that no member of staff confirm or deny that any specific individual is being lodged at the facility, and would not do so when asked about Eliason specifically.

When it comes to the charges or offenses alleged against those youths who find themselves at the center, all youth are treated equal, their offenses are left for the court and staff focus on keeping those in detention and those sentenced to residential treatment safe, Cotter said.

Their hope is to put them on a path that will lead them to a better future.

“Our goal, No. 1, is to really create and maintain a safe and secure and therapeutic environment,” Dama said.

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