By Adam Strunk
One story begins with a makeshift bludgeon: a five-pound, solid-metal toilet paper holder torn from the wall.
Another story ends with two crocheted blankets, wrapped around young adults, brought together by hardship, friendship, and now, a small amount of hope.
Both stories provide a window into Newton’s Youthville/EmberHope Campus.
And both stories must be told to understand the unique cost and work undertaken by the Newton community to care for hundreds of Kansas’s most traumatized children who pass through the residential foster care facility’s doors.
“It’s all over town.”
The makeshift metal bludgeon sits on the table of the briefing room in the Newton Police Department. On the other side are Lt Scott Powell, Officer Brian Salmans and then acting Chief Eric Murphy.
Salmans, who entered the item into evidence days earlier, told its story.
Police responded to a call from the secure care unit of the EmberHope facility after two girls barricaded themselves in a room.
The secure care facility holds girls ages 10 to 18 under lockdown on court orders, after the girls have repeatedly run away from their homes.
Officers spoke to the girls through the door, announcing that if they didn’t open the door, they would kick it open.
“Right before he opened the door, we heard something fall,” he said. “It was loud and metallic.
“When we started searching the room, we found this,” he said, showing the metal toilet paper holder.
Powell elaborated on the case.
“[Officers] found a list,” he said. “[The girls] had three staff members they were going to hit over the head with that,” Powell said. “They were going to steal the key fob from a staff member. They were going to Wal-Mart to steal necessities.”
In 2016, when three EmberHope residents succeeded in stealing a van, that success cost the Harvey County Sheriff’s Department an accrued $36,000 to house them in a juvenile detention facility in Hutchinson. While the girls were from outside the county, Harvey County paid the costs.
Powell said the recent attempted escape and planned assault provided an example of the daily reality faced by officers responding to the facility: the threat of physical violence.
“When our officers respond out there, if they start swinging that at our guys, you know how that could escalate,” he said.
Powell said that the facility caused some of the highest call load the department had to deal with.
According to the police department, calls to the property totaled 150 in 2017, 175 in 2018, and by the first quarter of 2019, the number had reached 57.
Those call numbers only included what happened on campus. Powell said often police had to track down those who ran away from the facility or committed property crimes, such as car burglaries or thefts from Wal-Mart.
“It’s all over town,” he said. “I don’t want it to be portrayed that we’re complaining about taking calls, but it’s daily that we’re either dealing with someone on campus, someone off campus and someone doing something in town. It’s not that our guys can’t go. It’s that they’re going there instead of going by your house or doing security checks.”
“We’re not bad kids.”
When they get going, MaKayla and Lydia make it hard to get a word in edgewise. They laugh, finish each other’s sentences, joke.
“This is my best friend,” Lydia says of MaKayla. “She’s crazy in a way I can understand,” she said. “We understand things on the same basis.”
The teenage girls share similar experiences. They both recently graduated and received their GED certificates. They both have plans for post-secondary education. Lydia hopes to study music at Cowley County Community College. MaKayla wants to be a nurse.
They also have court dates in July that will decide when they can live outside the EmberHope Secure Care facility.
The other similarities they share parallel many of the clients there.
They both deal with substance abuse. Lydia was smoking marijuana at 11 and moved on to pills and methamphetamine. MaKayla used marijuana and pills.
Both have suffered trauma.
Both stopped going to school.
Both ended up at the facility after a court ordered them to be there, following runaway attempts.
“I started running because I was in an abusive home,” Lydia said, explaining that the experience, the adrenaline rush, the freedom almost is addictive in itself.
“I started running when my mom would keep me home 24/7,” she said. “It’s the freedom.”
So, in the secure care facility, their friendship was formed: two teenage girls trying to make the best of a bad situation.
“We’re not bad kids,” Lydia said. “We’re not in foster care because we’re bad.”
Unique in the state
Last year, 169 clients—children ages 10 to 18—of the Kansas State Foster Care System came into and moved away from the EmberHope Campus. Population at any one time hovers around 50 clients from all over Kansas, spread over four housing facilities.
According to EmberHope, an average of 65 to 75 percent of residents in the secure care facility are survivors of human trafficking, while 45 to 55 percent in residential care are. Half have suffered from some sort of abuse.
No other facility in Kansas provides the broad array of group foster care services EmberHope now provides.
The secure care facility that holds 12 children is one of two in Kansas, the other operating in a juvenile detention facility in Wichita.
A psychiatric residential facility, created at the request of foster care contractors, is one of a kind, according to EmberHope President Nickaila Sandate. She said around 100 girls in the foster care system are waitlisted for mental health treatment. The facility, which holds 10, serves as a placement to provide some treatment or for girls to wait for a state bed to open up.
“There’s not enough beds [statewide], so it’s a work around,” Sandate said of the EmberHope facility. “When the state eliminated beds and shortened the length of stay, it created a problem. When children are discharged out of that and aren’t ready for care, the whole state has to figure out what to do.”
The facility offers a group home for clients who have increased mental health care needs and have had previous foster care placements, holding clients up to two years.
EmberHope also holds an assessment unit and emergency shelter for members of the foster care system who need services and a place to go. Often these kids have moved from multiple places, such as one 14 year-old-client who was transferred 52 times in three years. Residents stay between 30 and 60 days.
The goal is to serve the clients’ needs, eventually having clients able to go into permanent placement, live on their own or return to their families.
The organization itself serves as a subcontractor for St. Francis and KVC Health Systems, Inc., companies that the state contracts with to facilitate its foster care system. Kansas is among a minority of U.S. states with a privatized system.
Compensation for the care of children vary. According to Sandate, those in need of emergency shelter bring in a rate of $100 a day. Others are required to be in court lockdown, and the facility is compensated $220 a day. Others fall in the middle.
The campus has steadily seen a growing number of children since 2013, when a shake-up in how the state foster care system was structured resulted in Youthville losing its major state contract and most of the campus being shuttered, outside of the secure care facility.
At one point, EmberHope had the campus for sale. Since then, however, it’s committed to the campus, moving its main offices to Newton and expanding its services.
Sandate has the task of overseeing the ramping up of the campus. That ramping up can lead to more contact with law enforcement.
“We’ll be the first to acknowledge it when we open a new program and we’ll have more incidents,” she said. “Our call volumes go up, and we put more calls on them [responders].”
She explained part of that increase stems from state regulations, as well as respecting the rights of the organization’s clients.
As the dozen residents of the secure care facility are there by state order, the state allows the facility to be locked down.
Sandate said that’s not the case for the rest of the campus residents. Running away isn’t a crime. State regulations prevent staff from laying hands on residents unless they are a danger to themselves or others.
Former Chief Eric Murphy said that the department and the facility have come to various agreements and negotiations about how police will handle incidents.
“One of the issues, and they rectified a lot of this problem, they used to call us for kids who were out of control and expected us to handle it for them,” he said.
He said the department no longer responds to calls at the campus, unless residents are in danger of physically harming themselves or others, which decreased some of the strain on the department.
“Our policy is we don’t lay hands on someone unless we have criminal charges,” he said. “Them not going from one room to another is not a crime.”
Sandate said when a client leaves the property, staff attempts to stay with them and keep them in sight.
“We follow children off the property, and we’re required to call the police if they are out of eyesight from us. We have to call police,” she said. “Right now, the nature of the relationship we have with law enforcement, they take it, and I don’t believe they respond to it for four hours.”
Sandate said after the four hours have passed and if the residents have not returned to the facility, police do get involved.
On the police side, Powell said the department regularly searches and looks for residents who run away or leave. Powell said such efforts are necessary to protect clients, as well as the community.
“There’s times clients have went out to the community and broken into vehicles, stolen vehicles,” he said. “There’s been times where clients have run and been victims of sex crimes. That’s probably the biggest one that I can think of.”
“They hunt for these girls.”
During the last three years there have been at least seven incidents where law enforcement suspects criminals committed sex crimes against EmberHope clients, according to regular criminal reporting by Newton Now.
In 2016, police arrested a Great Bend resident, Michael Leeper, for having sex with a 13-year-old client of the facility, who left the grounds earlier that day.
In November of 2017, three clients left the campus, only to be victimized by human trafficking operations both in Wichita and Kansas City, according to Harvey County Attorney David Yoder. Police have arrested one man in connection with the case—Maurice Unruh—on three counts of rape of an underage child. He is housed in the county jail. Another man remains out on a warrant.
In November of 2018, two clients ran away and were found in a vacant house with a man who was arrested a month later for having sex with a 13-year-old girl.
Police arrested a former employee, Troy Thomas, for involvement in a November 2016 case, accused of two charges of aggravated indecent liberties and one charge of aggravated sexual battery for crimes against girls at the facility.
In February of 2019, Newton police arrested Richard Swanson, 41, on accusations that he had non-consensual sex with an 18-year-old resident of the campus and kept her and a 15-year-old resident of the campus against their will after he found them at the skate park a block west of the Newton Rec Center. He’s housed in the county jail.
Sandate said staff does everything in their power to keep clients safe, including working with them to help prevent them from running away.
“That’s one of the things that we’re constantly working with our youth on: how you make decisions to ensure your safety,” she said. “That’s what we’re supposed to be doing is keeping them safe and making sure they make smart decisions.”
However, the number of children who regularly rotate through makes it a challenge.
“I’d like to say we have these magic solutions,” she said. “We have children stay anywhere from 30 to 60 days in the shelter. That’s a lot of kids moving through the program. As much as we do to prevent the situations, unfortunately, sometimes things do happen.”
She said EmberHope follows state guidelines in such situations.
“We have mandated reporting,” she said. “And we do our own investigation. We have the staffing.”
She said that rarely will a resident go missing.
“Sometimes, what happens—I’m very thankful for—is kids will call home and they’ll go to the convenience store. They will go to an aunt and grandparent and they will call us, or they’ll show up at our house.”
The cases with less happy endings enter into the Harvey County court system.
Yoder said, in his opinion, any time his offices needed help from the facility, they provided anything he needed.
He said EmberHope faces specific difficulties because many of their residents are victims of human trafficking and that human traffickers often search for such runaways and previous victims.
“They hunt for these girls,” he said. “Those that have been trafficked before are easy pickings. They just get brainwashed into this lifestyle. They get so used to it; it’s really hard to break the cycle […] Words aren’t bad enough to describe what I think about these people that prey on these girls.”
Sandate agreed that many residents being victims of trafficking added an extra challenge.
“They feel like they can take care of themselves,” she said. “Structure and rules are difficult. It’s not uncommon that we see them revert back to the behavior that they know. We are responsible for making sure the community knows the population we serve and how you, as a caring person, can open your eyes and ears and call.”
Visiting the secure care facility on the EmberHope Campus presents a process.
There’s a discussion of what items can be brought inside, and those deemed unnecessary go into lockers in the garage converted into a security checkpoint.
Staff inspects bags and searches with a metal detector. Once everything checks out, the door inside opens to what looks like a large home. It has a kitchen, living rooms, windows, and video cameras installed in various corners. One staff member cooks lunch. Another helps a resident with online school work.
During their time at the home, clients like MaKayla and Lydia take online classes, attend drug and alcohol programs, meet with therapists and staff, have group discussions, do chores, and practice for situations outside the walls, such as job interviews.
“It gives you a chance to think about reality,” MaKayla said. “When you’re sitting here, all you have to do is think about people and what you did.”
For MaKayla, it’s a mother with poor health she could be there for.
“It made me think, ‘Dang, I should start preparing, saving up for a job and apartment,’” she said. “I could be helping my mom right now, but I’m in lock-up because I was selfish and I wanted to run.”
While there are fun moments like karaoke and basketball—Lydia and MaKayla claim they are the best—it’s not a very exciting place to be.
You look for ways to keep busy, Lydia explains. She writes music and has taken up an unexpected hobby.
“We crochet, too,” she said with a smile. “Like a bunch of old ladies.”
She said she picked it up after three days of cussing at it.
“The girls come in and say, ‘I’m not crocheting.’ Then everybody is doing it, and it’s so fun,” she said.
The crocheting passes the time through the various sessions. As time passed, Lydia’s blanket grew. She points out the various memories attached to different parts of the blanket.
“This part right here, I was in my barn garage, sitting in the garage at 6 a.m., crocheting my blanket,” she said, explaining that she was locked out of where she was living at the time.
She’s on her second stint at the secure care facility. The first involved her being released after two months. The blanket came with her after leaving.
Lydia noted that she believes trauma and substance addiction played a large role in previous decisions she made that negatively impacted her life.
“It makes me not care about anything any more,” she said about using. “A lot of time you have two things—one tells me to do good, one does bad. If I do drugs, I don’t have to hold back or feel bad or worry what they’re thinking.”
So, she said she’s been doing what she can to put herself in the best place to do well after she leaves. For one, she credits the program’s drug and alcohol program.
She listens to a lot of music and writes a little in her spare time.
She takes advantage of educational opportunities.
In a locked facility, if you apply yourself, it turns out you can knock out a lot of online credits.
Lydia said she didn’t think she would have earned her degree outside.
“Possibly. Probably not,” she said. “My dad really pushed me to do school, but it would probably be two years later.”
That educational achievement represents a doorway for both residents, one to another life and one they’re both proud of.
“I can’t wait to hold it up and be like, ‘Ha!’” Lydia said. “A lot of my family was, ‘Yeah, no.’”
“What ideas do you have?”
Next year, USD 373 will re-open a school, now called Opportunity Academy, on the EmberHope Campus. The school will provide a learning environment to a mix of EmberHope residents and Newton students, numbering around 50. EmberHope will provide the facility, and the school district, the staffing.
“Obviously, there’s a community need,” Sandate said. “We collectively have been working on getting that school up and running for the fall.”
The previous school on campus was shuttered after state funding decreased during the Brownback administration.
The school reopening is the result of two events: a collaboration between EmberHope and the school district and an increase in state funds.
Sandate said that more residents in a more structured environment might make clients more likely to stay on campus.
“I hope that we hire administration and teachers that are trauma informed and understand the restoration piece of that. That will help, having more adult professionals working with kids,” Sandate said.
As for larger security questions, Sandate said that’s an ongoing discussion. She said that the facility follows and exceeds all state guidelines for staffing levels.
She said 50 to 70 employees move in and out of the campus. That includes clinicians who provide therapy, drug and alcohol management, case supervisors, educational staff, administrative staff, and those who work within the residential centers.
“We over-staff when we open new programs,” she said. “We definitely try to put more people on the floor,” she said. “We have talked about security but haven’t come up with a solution, quite honestly, for it. Sometimes it’s asking our partners, ‘What ideas do you have?’”
Over the years, the organization has met with various community partners, including law enforcement and the Harvey County Prosecutor’s Office, to continue to figure out how everyone can work together.
“I think we need to keep working with Newton P.D.,” she said, explaining that the facility does not want to monopolize law enforcement’s time.
Powell said the department is going to keep doing what it can to help with runaway cases.
Murphy said finding a way to increase security would help.
“One of the things making our jobs easier is their ability to secure the children and actually put them in a time-out that would mean something and having adequate staff to deal with these clients,” he said.
During previous uses of the campus, when it did operate a day school, there was a school resource officer who was present, similar to the SRO agreement within school facilities in Newton.
On the county attorney’s side, Yoder said that his office makes an effort to go after anyone involved in victimization of residents.
“These are really hard cases because these kids have been emotionally broken, and they show up and need to be put back together again,” he said. “I vigorously prosecute the people who make these happen. Not just the traffickers but the people who participate in it.”
Yoder noted more state services would be useful.
“When you’re looking at abused children, we are way behind the curve versus the horrible things done to the kids versus the programs and the availability of people to rescue these kids to break the cycle and make them care again.”
Sandate said other solutions on a larger scale could help the campus, such as providing care to reach children and families before they enter into the residential system.
She said the Family First Prevention Services Act, passed in 2018, would provide grants to organizations like EmberHope to increase family counseling services geared at keeping families together.
She said increased funding to the state’s mental health care system is needed to increase state capacity to provide psychiatric services to children.
Other solutions could include expansion of the state’s Medicaid system. That expansion stalled in the recent legislative session.
“When there are not services, Medicaid for families, it puts the families in crisis. What we see at our facilities is neglect,” she said. “If you can’t take care of yourselves, you can’t take care of your children. As many kids are coming in for neglect as abuse. There’s a misconception that kids are removed predominately for abuse. It’s half and half.”
Finally, she said solutions and help have come from the community itself. A variety of churches or non-profits give time and assistance to the facility.
“The experience that I had when I sat down with a number of community members, I had nothing but warm welcomes and positive support,” Sandate said.
Such efforts include volunteering on campus or holding events like movie nights in the summer for the residents to attend. Various community foundations also provide grants and funding to the organization.
“I do think that one of the things we’re looking at is educational and support opportunities for these kids. One, they haven’t had adequate role models in regard to education and then just having jobs and having that whole experience of someone hiring you and trying it. Those come through your community’s willingness to partner and work with you and understand who they are.”
What they’ve been through
If court hearings go as planned, MaKayla and Lydia will soon be out in the world and back with family members. From there, it’s adulthood.
“I’m about to be 17, and I have a year countdown ’til I’m grown,” Lydia said. “Once you get older, are you going to set yourself up, or are you going to start with these charges?”
Lydia said she feels more confident now, following more time at the secure care facility, and it helped her. She said that the facility’s drug and alcohol program has helped, as well as having a therapist at the facility.
“Dealing with addiction has been pretty hard,” she said. “She’s helped me figure out my relapses and what triggers it, and I feel like I’ve gotten better at it.”
Lydia and MaKayla both will work with EmberHope staff and family members to make a placement successful.
“I just had my first session,” Lydia said. “Ariel has worked with me and helps me understand your parents. And when the therapist knows you and your trauma and stuff, it’s easy for you to guide your parent, as well.”
Lydia and MaKayla don’t think they’ll run away again.
“It helped me realize that running, it’s not stupid. But once you realize that running, if you have a good home, running is useless,” MaKayla said.
Both hope to stay sober.
“I can have a clear mindset,” Lydia said. “It’s helped me realize that the stuff I’m doing isn’t healthy for me.”
They will leave with an education, a different outlook on life, what they think will be a lasting friendships and their two crocheted blankets.
They represent the bright points, outside of negative headlines, police reports, recounting of victimizations, or the failure of state systems.
Standing outside, laughing, joking and hugging, they display the blankets proudly for a picture.
The picture shows something perhaps words do not, that stitch by stitch, month by month and with hard work and a little help, something beautiful can be made of even the worst situations.
“We’re a product of our environment,” Lydia said. “Everyone has a stereotype of us. You have to think about what they’ve been through, what made them want to run.”