Treatment, not punishment, is the goal at youth center in Silver Springs

SILVER SPRINGS - If Steve Mathews were a secret agent, he couldn't have a better cover.

He answers the phone "road department," even though he's the facility administrator at the $1.25 million Western Nevada Regional Youth Center.

But the five-county youth treatment and detention center in Silver Springs doesn't have a stick of furniture yet, nor even a telephone. His neighbors at the Lyon County Road Department let Mathews set up a temporary desk on the condition he answer the phone.

Mathews hopes to welcome the first youth by Feb. 1 to this grand experiment in juvenile justice for Carson City, Douglas, Churchill, Storey and Lyon counties.

He still needs to hire 15 employees and furnish the 29-bed youth center. Since starting on the job Oct. 4, Mathews has shown about 14 prospective employees around the facility and he ultimately expects to have some 80 people applying for jobs as 10 counselors, two supervising counselors, a senior administrative clerk, a mental health therapist and a cook.

Judges from the First (Carson City, Storey), Third (Lyon and Churchill) and Ninth (Douglas) Judicial districts serve as the center's oversight board, which is the body to which Mathews answers.

These judges will sentence convicted youth to the center, but this will be no juvenile hall.

Youth will sleep in unlocked rooms and there will be no law enforcement officers or firearms at the center.

"Here, the focus will be school, therapy and work," Mathews said. "There's not going to be a lot of free time."

Mathews said treatment will focus primarily on substance (including alcohol) abuse and related issues defined as poor self-esteem, anger management, poor peer relations and dysfunctional families.

Mathews brings definitive ideas to launching the Western Nevada Regional Youth Center. He built his thoughts about reforming children as superintendent at the Siskiyou County Juvenile Hall in Yreka, Calif., since 1987.

He said the juvenile hall was one of the few in California with a drug treatment program. Mathews built the drug treatment program in Yreka and he brings many of those elements to Silver Springs.

He said only about 25 percent of youth who went through the Yreka program were arrested again, compared with the normal repeat arrest rate of 50 to 80 percent.

Mathews said he builds the treatment around behavior modification and teaching transitional life skills, such as how to balance a checkbook and create an effective monthly budget.

Counseling will come in three varieties: individual, group and family.

"The judges are prepared to order families to attend counseling," Mathews said. "The probation office and my staff will assist with transportation. If you say you have no gas, we'll say, 'Be ready in 30 minutes and I'll have somebody pick you up.'"

Family involvement in youth counseling is sketchy at best for now with many Carson Country youth sent as far away as Caliente or Elko. With the only in-patient substance abuse facility for youth in Western Nevada opening in Silver Springs, the region will have a coordinated treatment program.

As an outsider, Mathews has marveled at how county/city managers, judges and juvenile probation officers of five very different counties were able to unite.

"The tremendous dedication that must have been there to produce this is amazing," he said. "This is not about politics. It's about the children of these counties. This is a real effort to work with these kids to overcome these issues."

The youth center gives no outward appearance of being a place for confinement. The cream-colored building could be a dentist's office.

The five-county consortium purposely downplayed the visible presence of a treatment/detention center, so much so that plans simply called for a 6-foot chain-link fence around the rear yard.

Mathews, however, convinced the judges to upgrade the fencing to 10 feet high with three strands of slanted barbed wire. The center may not be a juvenile hall, Mathews reasoned, but there's no sense giving youth an invitation to flee.

"I'm a realist," Mathews said. "It's not if a kid will try to escape. It's when."

Youth typically will spend 45 to 60 days here, with counseling and probation continuing for at least one year, he said.

"We will have a clear-cut plan agreed on by the juvenile probation office and the treatment staff, a plan of success, the equivalent of a probation contract," he said.

Mathews figures the day will start at 6 or 6:15 a.m. for youth. Before breakfast, they will be expected to clean their rooms, fold and put away clothes, even mop the floors.

The center has a classroom and students will spend four to five morning hours there in independent study or special education. A teacher supplied by the Lyon County School District will supervise the classroom.

Afternoons will typically see youth on work details around Silver Springs. Mathews has arranged with various county departments to have his charges clean roadsides, do graffiti removal, pull weeds along the highway, and undertake beautification projects.

"They will give back to the community," Mathews said.

The center has 27 three-bed rooms that are staff-secured (have no locks) and two locked detention cells. The staff secured rooms feed off the central activity room in two wings - a 15-bed wing for boys and a 12-bed wing for girls.

Mathews noted a design flaw in that the two wings have windows facing each other.

"I'll have to do something about that," he said. "The boys and girls will be flashing each other. Tinted glass may take care of that."


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