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Kids Department defends mostly empty detention facilities at budget hearing

Delaware Public Media

Juvenile Justice was a big topic of conversation at the Kids Department’s budget hearing Thursday.


The Joint Finance Committee spent all of Thursday with the Department of Children, Youth and their Families.


State lawmakers honed in on the Division of Youth Rehabilitation Services, which manages juvenile justice facilities up and down the state.


Division director John Stevenson revealed the department is managing less youth than in the past, around a third of the total capacity across all facilities.


JFC Co-chair Trey Paradee (D-Dover) questions the need to keep so many buildings open.


“If there isn’t as high a need for as many beds, why are we continuing to maintain these facilities and if we can find some cost savings in some places and again, be able to pay the staff a little bit better — be able to track and retain better staff," Paradee said. "Essentially deliver a better service I think that’s something that really needs to be taken under strong consideration.”


Stevenson cites at least 42 staff vacancies in the division, mostly because the state jobs aren’t competitive with the private sector.


Kids Department secretary Josette Manning defended the facilities, saying without all the buildings, there would be logistical issues transporting kids to court hearings and some may have to be sent out of state for rehabilitation, which could bring strain on their families.


State Rep. Kim Williams (D-Stanton) notes the Department of Correction was able to close one facility because of a population decrease, and wants to see the same possibility explored by the Kids Department.


The topic of keeping state jobs competitive was also back before the Joint Finance Committee.


The Department of Children, Youth and their Families presented its budget to the committee, asking for an almost $7 million increase from last year.


Some highlights include $3.4 Million for funding a deficit in behavioral health treatment and prevention programs, $2 million for a funding gap in the child welfare budget and around $436,000 towards transitioning to a new child welfare information system statewide.


The Kids department faces big staffing vacancies, as discussed last week during the Department of Human Resources meeting.


Alison McGonigal, director of the Division of Management Support Services, describes high staff turnover as part of the problem.


“And there’s a lot of competition out in the private sector nowadays," McGonigal said. "You know, we have Amazon going up right down the road from us who is a competitor and similar types of available jobs that were not always available to the staff that we used to be able to recruit and retain.”


Other parts of the division also face large staffing gaps. The Division of Youth Rehabilitation Services has over 42 open positions, with youth rehabilitation counselors starting salary at about $29,000.


State Sen. Dave Lawson (R-Cheswold) says the state now is paying people managing violent youth a salary comparable to flipping burgers at a restaurant.


The department says it is working with the Office of Management and Budget on salary increases and signing bonuses to make positions more competitive.


Other lawmakers discussed potentially closing some of the mostly empty rehabilitation facilities to reduce staffing and free up money to raise salaries.


Roman Battaglia a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Roman Battaglia grew up in Portland, Ore, and now reports for Delaware Public Media as a Report For America corps member. He focuses on politics, elections and legislation activity at the local, county and state levels.
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