Totem Town discussion kick-starts evaluation of juvenile corrections in Ramsey County

file photo • Discussions about Boys Totem Town’s ageing facilities have turned to conversations about Ramsey County’s juvenile corrections system and changes the county could make with the goal to better serve youth.

Boys Totem Town is a juvenille corrections institution in the Highwood Hills neighborhood of the East Side, as marked with the red dot.

What started as a conversation about Boys Totem Town’s ageing facilities has now turned into an evaluation of Ramsey County’s juvenile correction programming and how to better serve youth.

Totem Town is a Ramsey County-owned juvenile correctional institution for boys. The more than 100-year-old facility is located on 80-acres in the Highwood Hills neighborhood in the southeastern corner of the East Side, east of Highway 61 and south of Lower Afton Road. 

The institution serves about 20 or so boys who are there serving sentences for non-violent crimes. Totem Town has both day programming and houses boys overnight.

On Feb. 20, the county held a meeting at Battle Creek Recreation Center to update residents about its progress regarding what to do with Boys Totem Town, and the shift officials have taken to look at creating more options to better serve youth in the county’s corrections department. 


A continuing conversation

Discussions about what to do with the aging facilities at Boys Totem Town began in 2013 when the county started evaluating possible repairs to the century-old facilities.

Neighbors of Boys Totem Town have been very supportive of and friendly to the institution, which, as noted by St. Paul City Council member for Ward 7 Jane Prince during the Feb. 20 meeting, is quite unique for a corrections institution. Prince represents the neighborhood around Boys Totem Town.

Neighbors have been involved in much of the Totem Town discussion since it first started and voiced concerns over the future of the site; they support it staying there because of the green space it maintains in the community.

In the past year, the District 1 Community Council established a task force made up of community members to discuss possible future uses of the site and held a variety of regular meetings aimed at community building, using Boys Totem Town as a starting point. 

However, during these conversations, Jim McDonough, a Ramsey County commissioner and the county board chair, who represents most of the East Side, said the discussions always came back to the community asking about better ways to work with troubled kids and how to support them. 

“It’s a true awareness in our communities that we’ve been doing some things terribly wrong with our kids in particular, but [also] in general, in the whole corrections system,” McDonough said.

Instead of focusing on facilities, the county followed the lead of the community and about a year ago began to re-evaluate its juvenile corrections programming.

“These conversations are happening all over, not only in our country, but across the world,” McDonough said, pointing out the most sustainable and successful change comes from within the community. “Because you have all the stakeholders there and everyone has ownership to that success.” 


What needs to change

Ryan O’Connor is deputy county manager for the Health and Wellness Service Team at Ramsey County.

He is leading the re-evaluation effort for the service team, which is made up of many county departments: Social Services, Financial Assistance Service, Public Health, Community Corrections, Healthcare Services, Veterans Services, and Community Human Services Administration

About a year and half ago, the county restructured its departments, O’Connor said, with one of the more notable changes being the move of corrections to within the scope of health and wellness. 

While this change occurred before the county’s dive into re-evaluating its juvenile corrections system, O’Connor said that including corrections within health and wellness gives the county the ability to treat corrections less as a “single-system response,” but rather as something that can bring people closer to mental health and human services, in conjunction with corrections. 

The county spent much of 2017 evaluating it’s juvenile corrections programming and talking with those involved — judges, lawyers, current and former young people who have gone through the system — to identify what needs to change. At the end of 2017, the team brought it’s findings to the county board.


No definitive answers

In its presentation, O’Connor’s team identified a three-tiered approach of how to continue its evaluation. The approach includes finding ways to reform the juvenile justice system in ways that better support youth; creating a new treatment center, possibly at a site in Roseville; and focusing on creating alternative placements that can keep youth in their homes.

This approach was created based off items the county identified as needing to be addressed — having facilities more easily accessible by multiple modes of transportation, keeping youth near their families and within the county, creating more placement options, addressing the disproportinate number of youth of color coming into contact with corrections, providing crisis and trauma support, parent support, healthcare and family engagement, among other issues.

Throughout the process the county has received technical support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is geared specifically towards the betterment of youth and conducts research on topics like youth incarceration. 

Ramsey County is basing much of its approach on such research, which says that youth in the corrections system are more successful when they are kept in their communities and near their families. Many of the changes O’Connor’s team is looking to make have to do with creating more placement options and keeping them in the county, even at home. 

O’Connor said it’s important to note that the county has made no decisions, and the goals laid out are what his team is using to continue to its evaluation. 

“We’re in a weird grey area,” O’Connor said, pointing out its unclear what the county will do.

He said his team will continue its evaluation and report back to the board of commissioners this summer. At that point the board may give the team the go-ahead to begin to make changes. 


So what about Boys Totem Town?

Both O’Connor and McDonough said now that the county has been focused on systemic changes, the specific question of what to do with Boys Totem Town has been put on the backburner.

At the beginning of 2017 there had been discussions with Hennepin County to create a shared facility between the two counties, but O’Connor said that when it became evident that Ramsey County was shifting its focus towards systematic changes, the counties decided to move on from that idea. 

O’Connor said what may happen is as alternative programming and placements are created for youth, judges may slowly stop sending boys to Totem Town, eventually leading to its closure due to lack of necessity. 

The Feb. 20 meeting held by the county to update neighbors about the process, which was rescheduled from an earlier January date that was snowed out, had fewer than 10 neighbors show up, compared to other meetings that filled gymnasiums.

However, those who did show up were pleased with the county’s response and the work completed so far. 

McDonough said he believed the low attendance to be a sign that the community has confidence in the county’s work. 


Green space, other facilities

Tom Dimond, who has been a Highwood Hills and Boys Totem Town neighbor for more than 45 years and has closely followed any changes around the facility, was at the meeting and said he has been really impressed by the work so far. Dimond is also a former St. Paul City Council member.

He said he has learned a lot from meetings the community has held with staff from the county. 

“It sounds like it has a better future,” Dimond said. 

Other neighbors voiced similar thoughts, many happy to see the county addressing the deeper, systemic changes.

Dimond has also been a strong supporter of maintaining the 80-acre site as green space if Boys Totem Town were to shut its doors for good, continuing to remind the community and local governments of the Highwood Hills development plan, which was created in 1995 and recertified in 2009.

He refers to a statement in the plan that says, “In the event Totem Town becomes available for alternative uses, it should be designated as public open space with appropriate areas set aside as undeveloped natural areas representative of the region’s ecosystem.”

He said while he is happy with Boys Totem Town remaining as is for the time being, he wonders if some work could be done to help clean it up as well, referring to some old cars and other refuse scattered about the property. 

While no final decisions have been made on any facilities, the county is looking into a property it owns near the intersection of Dale Street and Larpenteur Avenue, north of the Temple of Aaron Cemetery, for a possible day program facility. 

Currently, the county rents the site and facilities there to Volunteers of America, but O’Connor said staff there are aware of the discussions and may be included in the county’s planning for possible changes to its youth corrections programming. 

McDonough added that if, through these changes, Boys Totem Town were to cease operating, “we’re not just going to put up a for-sale sign,” he said, clarifying that the community will continue to be involved in future discussions of Totem Town’s future.


– Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.

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