State Law Loophole Creates Safety Concerns for Juvenile Shelters

State-funded short-term facilities can't lock juveniles inside facility

A state-funded facility meant to keep troubled youth safe is allowing kids to leave the facility all hours of the night, and the state says there is nothing it can do about it, NBC 5 Investigates has found.

It's happening at Aunt Martha's short-term shelter in Bronzville.

"They can come and go as they please," said Karen Collymore Chalmers, who lives across the street from the shelter.

"I can sit in my living room and see them fighting in the middle of the street, and I call the police. Sometimes they come. Sometimes they don't."

Police did show up last month just before midnight, when three kids were shot while standing in front of Aunt Martha's at 50th Street and Michigan Avenue. NBC 5 Investigates has learned all three kids were wards of the state and living at the emergency shelter.

One of the victim's -- an 11-year-old girl who was shot in the ankle -- had left the group home minutes before the shooting. Apparently staff members tried to talk her out of leaving, but could not.

The young girl and the two teens all survived the shooting.

"I think it's an extremely dangerous and volatile situation that's waiting to happen," said state Rep. Ken Dunkin, who lives on the same street as the facility. "It's probably going to be worse than just being shot, but possibly ending in death."

Dunkin took video of a 13-year-old resident outside the facility around midnight over the July 4th weekend.

"Having kids that have literally no supervision, whatever access to come out of state-run facility is an abomination," Dunkin said.

The problem is, the shelter can't lock the kids inside the facility, even though they are wards of the state. That's only allowed in state psychiatric facilities and jails. Kids who live in short term shelfter are not supposed to walk out, but state rules say if a child demands to leave, and they're not considered dangerous to themselves, no one can stop them.

In fact, NBC 5 Investigates has found police have been called to the facility 27 times in the last 12 months. But current and former employees say there's a bigger problem inside the facility.

"We have children who come from all walks of life there. So it's not uncommon to know there will be violence there. We understand that," said Aurelia Daniels, a former employee at Aunt Martha's. "Some children, they punch staff, throw things at the staff. Other children might just bite staff. I've been bit by a client and she broke the skin and I had to go to the emergency room."

Daniels says she was attacked by residents four times during the year she worked at the home. Multiple other former employees tell NBC 5 Investigates they were also assaulted.

"They're going to react and act out and sometimes engage in physical aggression to express how they're feeling about being there," said Raul Garza, President and CEO Aunt Martha's Youth And Service Center. "They're frustrated."

Garza heads Aunt Martha's Youth and Service Center, which receives roughly $72 million in funding a year for the community health centers, facilities for families and shelters for children.

"We train the staff to try to de-escalate situations, given the kids have had a traumatic experience in the home setting," Garza said.

Since the shooting outside the facility, Garza says they've increased the number of staff at the shelter. In addition, they have ramped up security and worked with neighbors to resolve issues.

Both neighbors and employees say they don't want the shelter shut down. They simply want things to change.

"No kid should be left untouched or unchanged ... No kids are unsalvageable. These children all could be helped, they all could be reached," Daniels said.

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