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VERNAL — A program for troubled youth is under scrutiny after a teen walked away over the weekend — prompting an extensive search. The Journey Impact Ranch is a facility designed to integrate troubled kids back into society, but who holds treatment centers such as this one accountable?
The state of Utah spends around $14 million on programs such as this one with the goal of rehabilitating teens. The Division of Juvenile Justice contracts with 30 privately-owned programs which provide counseling and a structured environment for troubled youth.
While state officials stand behind their juvenile justice system, they also said they won't hesitate to take a close look when something goes wrong.
The type of expansive search that took place over the weekend, for 14-year-old Andre Duran is exactly the type of thing counselors at treatment centers would like to avoid.
"When a kid does walk away, we take every step to try and locate them as soon as possible," said Elizabeth Sollis, spokeswoman for the Utah Division of Juvenile Justice.
This is precisely why the agency called on multiple resources to find Duran. Rescue workers found the teen alive and well on Sunday, ending the three-day search. Duran told police he got lost.
In the wake of that search, an internal investigation into what went wrong has already been launched.
"There's a thorough review and then based on the findings, they would provide recommendations," Sollis said.
In a worst-case scenario, the state could even decide not to renew its contract with the Journey Impact Ranch. Still, those involved are standing behind the program as a whole.
We want to make sure that the place they're in meets their needs while also (keeping) the community safe.
–Elizabeth Sollis, spokeswoman, Utah Division of Juvenile Justice
"Competency development is one thing that has really helped me out," said Brady Petersen, who went through several of the programs as a teenager. "I found myself getting in a lot of fights. I got mixed up in the wrong crowd and I was definitely a part of that crowd."
Today, Petersen is a youth counselor at Millcreek Youth Center in Ogden — a facility for some of the most serious juvenile offenders.
"I just want to give back to them," he said. "I believe in them and I haven't been through all the same things as them, but I've been in their shoes."
But caring for those teen offenders can be a difficult task. In all, the state currently has about 500 teens in community-based programs. Most of those are privately run, and costs run anywhere from $30 to $230 a day per teen.
Each program is different, and each teen is placed carefully based on a judge's orders and case worker recommendations, according to DCFS.
"We want to make sure that the place they're in meets their needs," Sollis said. "Also, keep the community safe."
While it's a given that many of the teens do not go willingly, the hope is that by the time they're done they're able to get back into society without getting into more trouble with the law.
"There is another way," Petersen said. "There are success stories out there. There are people like me that do change."
Those privately-owned centers also get some oversight from the Utah Office of Licensing and the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.
Just over 80 percent of youth who go through those programs do not have a new felony within a year of being released, according to state numbers.