Private juvenile center conceals abuse inquiries and pressures county to keep its business deal

Source: Tom Scheck, Curtis Gilmore, MPR News, May 2, 2016

Last spring, Caroline Mattson informed her superiors at Minnesota’s largest private correctional facility for boys that three boys had told her they’d been sexually abused by an employee. They began an internal investigation, prompted either by that report or another. But the leaders there — at Mesabi Academy in Buhl, Minn. — did not tell St. Louis County authorities about the allegations, a decision that avoided outside scrutiny and may have evaded state law. Six months later, in October 2015, county officials learned of the alleged incidents, which both triggered their own investigation and contributed to a decision to end a contract critical to Mesabi’s ability to operate in Minnesota. … On Friday, county officials said they had closed their six-month investigation into Mattson’s allegations without determining any maltreatment had taken place. They said they had insufficient evidence. But St. Louis County also confirmed Mesabi Academy didn’t report several allegations of sex abuse to authorities. State law required the academy to report such allegations to St. Louis County Child Protection or law enforcement within 24 hours of being told. In all, the county said Friday it had closed its investigation into 20 allegations of maltreatment over the past 14 months, saying in each case that maltreatment could not be determined. In at least three of those cases, it was clear that Mesabi Academy knew of allegations but did not report them to the county. It’s not clear how many others it kept secret.

… Mesabi Academy can be a harsh and violent place. Workers say they sometimes fear for their safety and frequently break up fights among residents. Since 2009, it has generated far more complaints about conditions and treatment than any of the other 60-plus juvenile facilities overseen by the Department of Corrections, an examination of records by APM Reports shows. Before the sex-abuse allegations emerged last spring, employees had been criminally charged with sexually abusing residents three times since 2000. … Mesabi Academy’s nonprofit parent in Pennsylvania, KidsPeace, wouldn’t make officials available to respond to questions Friday evening, saying it wanted to talk with county officials after reviewing the information.