NEWS- Few visits: Detention center houses lonely kids

Despite the Charlie Brown mural outside its spartan classrooms, the Blue Ridge Juvenile Detention Center is "not a happy place," says the parent of one Albemarle County teen who has been jailed for nearly two months awaiting trial.

The spotless 40-bed facility on Peregory Lane, tucked between the National Guard Armory and Albemarle/Charlottesville Regional Jail off Avon Street Extended, may appear to run like a well-oiled machine. But superintendent Charlie Edwards, who has also worked in adult prisons, knows there's more to successful rehabilitation than keeping graffiti off the walls.

"By the time a child reaches us, there's already been a failure," Edwards says. "That child's been failed already by schools, churches, other providers..."

Although the juvenile detention system was founded on the premise of rehabilitation, pre-trial detention is not intended to be rehabilitative, Edwards says. "We don't provide treatment." After a child has been sentenced, it becomes, he says, "more rehabilitative; but public safety is still a concern."

Edwards says more children are now serving their sentences in the Center rather than being sent to the more prison-like youth correction center in Richmond. That's because of a new phenomenon in Virginia, in which any child who could be committed– with the exception of violent offenders– can have that sentence suspended in lieu of successful completion of a six-month program, Edwards says.

"We're keeping him close to home; the parents can visit; and we can hopefully effect a better transition back to the community," Edwards says.

Dubbed the "post dispositional" program, the effort currently has six kids with space for four more. They learn life skills and work towards a diploma or GED. The days are still regimented– up at 5am, in bed by 9pm, with little unscheduled time in between.

But life in the "Charlie Pod"– as the post-dispositional unit is known– is "more relaxed," Edwards says, and the privileges increase over time.

During their last two months in, kids are occasionally allowed to leave the simple brick complex to visit home "on furlough," their shackles removed when they leave the premises– unlike pre-disposition cases. Edwards says this is all part of the transition period.

What might make jail a bit less traumatic for the children– who range in age from 10-17– would be a truly rehabilitative program, but Edwards says the state fails to provide adequate funding.

"Our localities have stepped up to the plate," he says, describing a $10,000 grant from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, which provides the jail with a doctoral student in psychology from UVA for 16 hours a week. But Edwards acknowledges that's not enough to meet the needs of all the incarcerated children.

"I would love to have a full-time psychologist on staff," he says, "but it's cost-prohibitive without state assistance."

The Albemarle teens who await trial know all of this firsthand, according to the mother of one boy. "He cried himself to sleep every night," she says. "He wanted to talk to the therapist, but he couldn't get in to see her."

When it comes to juvenile detention, he's one of the lucky ones. He can at least tell his parents how he's feeling on the lone visiting days. Some kids, according to Edwards, have no one who comes at all.