Runaways from ECA spike in July; solution may be in the works - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Runaways from ECA spike in July; solution may be in the works


Eau Claire (WQOW) - It's been a problem for years, and a solution may finally be in the works. Runaways from the Eau Claire Academy have spiked this month, and the city says something needs to be done to prevent these kids from leaving the facility, and costing the city's time and resources.

"Bottom line is we're trying to reduce the numbers. A runaway situation is dangerous not only for the resident of the academy but also for our community," says Eau Claire City Attorney Steve Nick.

The Eau Claire Academy is a residential treatment facility for around 80 kids with behavioral, emotional, mental or physical challenges. The facility, run by Clinicare, tries to help integrate these kids back into their community.

"The kids are typically placed by court order. This is not a voluntary situation on their part, and as you might imagine, a lot of the kids don't want to be at the facility," says Eau Claire Police Sgt. Travis Quella.

So they run away. In the month of July alone, Eau Claire police have responded to nearly 60 runaway cases at the Eau Claire Academy.

"An example would be a case we had just last week. We had two runaways enter a residence. They were interrupted by a landlord, they were taken into custody. The very next day, the same two that were involved in the burglary were on the run again," says Sgt. Quella.

That high number is costing the city time and resources.

"Typically, especially in the last month or so, almost every apprehension involves a foot pursuit," says Sgt. Quella.

"In June and July, they're at an unacceptably high level," Nicks says.

But the city and police say the issue isn't the Eau Claire Academy's fault, it's the State Department of Children and Families, and in particular, one statute.

"They want to make the kids safe, but what has actually happened is it's been restrictive to the point that the kids are actually put in additional danger, and when the kids are put in additional danger, of course the community is all at the same time," Sgt. Quella says.

At issue is a statute from the State Department of Children and Families, regarding what staff members at residential care facilities can do to stop these runaways.

DCF 52.42 says "A center staff member may not use any type of physical restraint or physically enforced separation on a resident unless the resident's behavior presents an imminent danger of harm to self or others-- and physical restraint is necessary to contain the risk and keep the resident and others safe."

The city says it's DCF's current interpretation of "imminent danger" that hampers the academy's ability to stop these runaways from happening in the first place.

"They cannot stand in front of a door to block a child. They cannot put their hands on that child. A child could literally be telling staff 'listen, I'm going to run away, I'm going to leave the building'. That child could be as young as 12 or 13, they could have only been at the Academy for a couple of days, and unless that child would, say, make some specific suicidal comments or something along those lines, staff would literally have to let them walk out the door," Sgt. Quella explains.

Police and the city say that definition needs to be changed, since historically, those kids have broken into cars, houses and run through traffic trying to get away.

"It is our position that any child that leaves the facility is in some type of danger. It may be potential danger, and it might not be imminent in the conventional definition of imminent, but they are in some danger," Sgt. Quella says.

The city, police, and the state have been meeting to come up with a solution.

"It's an ongoing effort with the Academy, the police department and also DCF as their state regulator to try and find that right balance," Nick says. "Facilities like this are needed. They need to be located somewhere, the Eau Claire Academy's been located in its present location for decades, and the city's not taking the position that it's inappropriate to be in the city, simply that it needs to operate at a lower runaway volume and a lower incident level."

In a statement, the Eau Claire Academy says they typically have around an 80-percent success rate of re-integrating kids back into traditional schooling. The city and police say they're pleased with how discussions have gone with the academy. The attorney for the city of Eau Claire says there's no timetable yet on when the changes could be made from the Department of Children and Families.

In a statement from The Department of Children and Families, the agency says "The Department has heard the concerns from law enforcement and the community regarding residents at the Eau Claire Academy. We are cooperatively engaging representatives of the community, Eau Claire Academy, and other providers to address best practices in handling cases of children who are at risk of running away from residential care centers."


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