WHEN he took over as executive director of the state's Office of Juvenile Affairs a year ago, Keith Wilson said he was looking to do something challenging and rewarding. He's certainly experienced plenty of the former.
“It's a much bigger job than I realized when I took it,” Wilson said this week.
The OJA has seen its share of trouble in recent years. In August 2011, a boy suffered a brain injury when he was attacked at a facility in Tecumseh. The attack highlighted a security weakness: When the Legislature closed the L.E. Rader Center in Sand Springs, the system lost its ability to lock violence-prone residents in their rooms at night.
A Rader employee had warned that the OJA facilities in Tecumseh and Manitou weren't equipped to handle the high-security Rader clientele who were being moved there as a result of the closure. Two major fights subsequently broke out at the Tecumseh center.
Wilson, 70, is a U.S. Navy veteran who spent many years as a lawyer in Kansas and later was a district judge there for 16 years before retiring in 2005. He soon returned to work, for the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System in Woodward, and spent six years representing adults and juveniles before retiring again.
OJA has made positive strides in the past year. This week, the agency planned to remove the last four girls from its mixed-gender facility in Tecumseh and place them in a privately run site in Norman. That will create more beds at the Tecumseh site. More importantly, Wilson said, the change addressed a big problem.
“There was so much time and effort spent just keeping them apart,” he said. “This will be easier to keep their attention on the treatment program, for the boys and for the girls.”
A recent study by The Pew Charitable Trusts showed the number of juveniles incarcerated in Oklahoma has fallen in recent years, as is true nationwide. That's progress, although Wilson pointed out that adequate staffing remains a concern. “These are hard places to work and the pay isn't very good. We have pretty heavy turnover,” he said.
The same is true in Oklahoma's adult detention system. Indeed Wilson sounds like former Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones when he says his agency “just does not seem to be a favorite” with the Legislature.
The OJA's state appropriation for this fiscal year was $98.1 million, a $2 million increase from the previous year. However the bulk of that increase must go to youth services organizations that contract with the agency; the remainder will provide more compensation to contractors who provide out-of-home placement of juveniles.
Wilson used revolving fund money to pay for the female-specialized facility in Norman. Keeping that going next year will require $2.8 million. He also would like additional funding to provide proper training for staff members. New hires get two weeks of prep time “and then basically they're thrown into the fire. We should be following up that training on a regular basis with additional training,” he said.
He also wants proper analysis of work now being done with juveniles in his custody — to “make sure the money I'm spending is well spent.” That attitude alone ought to be worth something with lawmakers.
Wilson says of OJA: “We have the ability to help some of these kids, so that when they leave our custody they go out into society and can be successful and happy and beneficial to society. ... We could increase the number of kids that end up that way.”
This is a goal worth supporting.