25 Investigates: Dozens of high-risk youth escaping treatment facilities each year

25 Investigates: Dozens of high-risk youth escaping treatment facilities each year

In the quiet Central Massachusetts town of Barre, the evening calm is often disrupted by the sound of reverse 911 calls and state police helicopters flying overhead.

Barre is home to the Stetson School, a private residential treatment facility for boys 9 to 22 with mental health issues and sexually problematic behaviors. The school, an open 200-acre campus licensed to house up to 96 high-risk male students, has largely been a positive fixture in this town of about 5,000. But a recent rash of risky runaways from the facility has unnerved residents and is threatening the school’s legacy.

Following several tips about the runaways, 25 Investigates examined the impact these escapes are having on police and residents. We found a strain on resources in Barre and several other communities like it that host treatment programs for high-risk youth.

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In Barre, the reverse 911 calls come in at all hours of the night. The voice on the other end typically alerts residents of a young male or males who have been reported missing from the facility. In some case, the alert comes with a warning – the subject or subjects may be armed with a weapon.

“Because we are so close to the proximity of Stetson, helicopters have been over our house many times," said longtime Barre resident Matt Berthiaume, who shares a home with his wife Kate and two of their kids. "The police have been in front of our house many times."

In January, a 14-year old walked away from the school and ended up in the Berthiaume’s driveway, and took off in Kate’s vehicle.

“He happened to open up my car and saw the keys and took the car. It could've been anybody's vehicle in the area, it happened to be mine" recalls Kate.

News of the escapes and the frequency with which they are happening have lifelong Barre resident Michael Day very concerned.

He recounted to 25 Investigates the night an escaped student was picked up behind the home he and his fiancé share with their three kids.

“They had the road blocked off from here all the way down to the store about a quarter of a mile away," Day recalled. “They had four different forces, including state police. They were telling kids to go inside, and everybody was just panicked down here. There were cops down here with K-9s walking the street."

Day says the whole experience left his family pretty shaken up and says he fears for his children’s safety. But there is also concern for the Stetson students who escaped. Residents and town officials alike worry that a student may end up getting hurt.

“At times we feel that the students themselves are going to be threatened. They are going to be in a place where they shouldn't be at the wrong time," Matt Urban, chair of the Barre Select Board, told 25 Investigates’ reporter Ted Daniel.

Urban added that as the Stetson escapes become more public and more residents learn about them, emotions have been building up, and residents have become less welcoming of the school. It is not only straining nerves and resources but also relationships, he says.

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25 Investigates obtained town records. They show that Barre police and fire have responded to the Stetson campus 103 times so far this year. Seven of those calls were for runaways.  In 2018, emergency personnel responded 182 times. Fourteen of those were runaway calls, which often require outside assistance from neighboring police departments as well as State Police.

“It's taking the resources we need elsewhere in town and diverting them to the school. And I would say that could add up to almost a full police officer's salary a year," said Urban.

Across Massachusetts, communities that host programs like Stetson that provide services to high-risk youth are also feeling the pinch.

In the past year, police in Methuen responded to 61 calls involving runaways from the Key Program, which, according to its website, assists “troubled youth and their families with the development of positive life skills and experiences."

In Rutland, police responded to 27 calls involving runaways from the Devereaux School over the past year. According to its website, Devereaux “serves child and adolescent males who present with a variety of social, emotional, and behavioral issues."

Stetson is operated by the Worcester-based non-profit Seven Hills Foundation but received funding from the Department of Children and Families to provide residential care and treatment services for boys age 9-18 under DCF care. Not all children at the school are in DCF care, and some even come from out of state.

The school has history in Barre that dates to 1890, when it started out as an orphanage.

And Kate Berthiaume, whose car was stolen by a Stetson escapee in January, remembers better days. She is a lifelong Barre resident and worked at Stetson for a decade, where she eventually became the school’s assistant education director. Kate says she left the job about seven years ago, soon after Seven Hills took over.

“When Seven Hills took over there were a lot of changes that happened, and I was put in a position where I didn't feel supported as an employee," said Kate

25 Investigates reviewed complaints filed by Barre residents with the town. Most involved security concerns at Stetson.

Documents show that after a June 18, 2018, Select Board meeting, the town asked Seven Hills to build a perimeter fence around Stetson. Instead of a fence, lawyers for Seven Hills responded with a letter that in part reads: “…should the Board of Selectmen disparage [Seven Hills Foundation] and/or Stetson staff and students" the agency would take “any legal necessary steps" against the board.

“There are times I wonder if they truly understand our position," said Urban, the chair of the Barre Select Board. “Sometimes I feel like they don't want to hear what we have to say."

Seven Hills declined to speak with us on camera but in a statement told us that they “understand and acknowledge" the community’s concerns and continue to be good neighbors. They also stressed that “Stetson School is an educational program rich in clinical services and not a locked, secure program or a correctional facility. The majority of elopements from the Stetson School are resolved without any outside intervention and the number of elopements has actually gone down over the last five years by 75 percent."

In their statement, the agency also announced the following changes.

The Stetson School, in close coordination with the State Department of Children and Families, is making some programmatic and operational changes.  The treatment needs of some students sent to Stetson have made it difficult to serve them well.  As a result, Stetson is reorganizing the level of care it provides so that it won’t serve students who would be better served through a secure program.  We are confident this will further reduce the incidence of elopement.

Stetson receives funding from a variety of sources, including local school districts. In FY18, DCF paid Stetson $6.9M to provide residential services at two specific locations on the Barre campus.

In a statement, a DCF spokesperson told 25 Investigates: “The Stetson School serves youth from a variety of backgrounds, some of whom are in the care of the Department of Children and Families (DCF). DCF has specific protocols for schools with a DCF contract, like Stetson, to report and respond to missing youth, and has designated social workers to search for those youth."