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Attempted suicides spike at La Crosse County Juvenile Detention Center; officials push for more staff and cell redesign

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La Crosse County officials want to add staff and make structural changes to cells after a spike in suicide attempts in juvenile detention.

There have been 13 suicide attempts so far this year in the county’s Juvenile Detention Center, nearly twice as many as in all of 2016.

Mandy Bisek


David Steinberg


“Absolutely, it’s very concerning,” said Mandy Bisek, manager of the county’s Justice Support Services agency that oversees the facility. “It speaks to the needs of the kids we’re working with.”

Supervisors first noticed the spike in December, when there were three attempts in one week, said David Steinberg, the facility’s superintendent.

But facility supervisors took until last week to schedule a meeting with an architect to develop a plan to replace doors and bunk beds to prevent hangings. On the same day, the head of the county’s Health and Human Services Department asked a committee for more staff, an uncommon move outside the budgeting period.

The preventive measures come weeks after the Tribune sought records on the suicide attempts.

Human Services Director Jason Witt said the request for more staff now is a response to the average daily population, which has steadily increased from seven in 2012 to 13 this year; a rising demand for the facility’s court-ordered treatment program; and the increase in reports of self-harm.

“The time was now,” Steinberg echoed.

Juvenile detention

The county in 1990 opened its first detention facility for juveniles on the top floor of the Health and Human Services building in downtown La Crosse.

One of only 13 in the state, the facility houses 10- to 17-year-olds from throughout the region for up to a year.

The non-secure unit, referred to as shelter, has room for eight children who are delinquent, need protection from home, are runaways or are suffering from mental health problems.

The shelter models life at home. Children wear their own clothing and have their own bedrooms with a small window. They’re free to leave, although most don’t.

“They sort of run the place,” Steinberg said. “We’re here to contain the chaos.”

On the other side of the facility is the secure unit.

“It’s jail,” Steinberg said.

These are the serious offenders, many of whom are working their way through the CORE Academy, a court-ordered treatment program launched in 2012 that serves as a prison alternative.

They sleep behind bars in white cinderblock cells, bare except for a steel bed, desk, toilet and sink. There is space here for 26, but the facility won’t house more than 15.

La Crosse County Juvenile Detention Center

La Crosse County Juvenile Detention Center Superintendent David Steinberg in a cell block at the downtown facility.

Family can visit daily for face-to-face contact or in a booth where glass separates them from a child, grandchild or sibling. Most days, it sits empty.

“We will go weeks without using that room,” Steinberg said.

Regimented schedules for juveniles in both units begin at 6 a.m. La Crosse School District teachers keep them in class for 5½ hours five days a week. They have access to medical care, therapy, a small gym for exercise, common areas for reading, movies and games, and a 1,200-square-foot outdoor recreation area finished in April.

La Crosse County Juvenile Detention Center

A common room at the La Crosse County Juvenile Detention Center. 

“One boy hadn’t been outside in a month, and he just stood there looking up at the sky,” Steinberg said.

La Crosse County Juvenile Detention Center

La Crosse County Juvenile Detention Center Superintendent David Steinberg in the facility’s new outdoor recreation area.

Parents or caregivers are responsible for daily housing costs that range from $135 in shelter to $250 for those enrolled in the CORE Academy. Less than 10 percent is collected from parents either unable or unwilling to pay, Steinberg said.

‘I wish there was an easy answer’

There was one attempted suicide in 2012 and three each in 2013 and 2014. There were two attempts in 2015, seven in 2016 and 13 since Jan. 4, according to records released under open-record laws.

All juveniles who attempted suicide were housed in the secure portion of the facility.

It’s difficult to attribute the spike to a single cause. Officials say they’re witnessing an increase in juveniles suffering from complex mental health problems and traumatic childhoods, including abuse and neglect, and exposure to substance abuse and domestic violence.

“I wish there was an easy answer,” Bisek said.

In Eau Claire, Wis., the Northwest Regional Juvenile Detention Center can house up to 23 delinquent juveniles but averages about 14 daily, said Rob Fadness, who oversees the facility. In 2016, one juvenile attempted suicide. There were no attempts in 2015.

Still, Fadness cautions against comparing juvenile facilities.

“It’s apples to oranges,” he said. “Our group of kids is different from La Crosse, which is different from Dane County and so on.”

Staff must check on each child every 15 minutes by Fadness’ policy.

“That’s just one of my things,” he said. “You’re talking about a population that by definition is impulsive. They don’t really plan for the future.”

More staff, fewer bars

At the La Crosse facility, staff check on juveniles about every 13 minutes. The state requires they are checked on every 30 minutes.

Juveniles housed long-term undergo a mental health needs assessment and meet at least weekly with the on-site therapist, while mobile crisis workers respond to all attempted suicides and as needed, Steinberg said.

Staff are responsible for the operation of the facility, but it’s imperative they take time to connect with kids, Steinberg said. While state statute requires just one employee for every 15 residents, the La Crosse facility staffs two.

Staffing levels in the secure unit haven’t changed since 2011, despite the rising population. Steinberg said supervisors have considered asking for more staff for three years but didn’t see the need. Now, Bisek said, “We didn’t feel like we could wait.”

“Two is a little thin,” Steinberg said.

Witt on Tuesday asked the Health and Human Services Board to approve a measure that would add five staff members to the facility’s secure unit at a cost of $129,741 for the rest of the year.

“Safety for the kids and staff is a top concern,” county Administrator Steve O’Malley said.

The measure won unanimous approval and goes before the full county board on Thursday. If approved, the three full-time and two-part time employees would increase staffing levels from two to three, plus a supervisor, from 8 a.m. to midnight. Witt hopes they are working by July 1.

“We want more staff to build better relationships with kids,” Steinberg said. “And this will enhance that greatly.”

The request for more staff is about engagement, and officials hope it slows the suicide attempts.

“When you have more bodies, you have more ability to sit down with the kids, play cards with them, just talk to them,” Bisek said.

Of the 13 suicide attempts since Jan. 4, all but one involved hangings from cell door bars or bunk beds. Steinberg hopes new solid doors and single beds are installed by July 1.

La Crosse County Juvenile Detention Center

After a rise in hangings, bunk beds at the La Crosse County Juvenile Detention Center will be removed and replaced with single beds.

“There is nothing that will make it suicide-proof. Nothing,” Steinberg said. “But we’ll be at about 95 percent.”

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(13) comments


Let it go- Thank you sir, that actually means alot. As for worship: There are options, though the options available are limited and also part of the problem. Certain religious representatives share the idea that once a kid is incarcerated it must be because the child is 'wrong' and should be punished. I think it was a bit worse with the pastors and priests and whatnot that did show up every now and then. With the staff you expected them to treat you like a criminal, thats their job. But with the 'church people' (as I and my fellow juveniles generalized them ), it was more about proving a point than helping a confused or scared kid through a tough time. Once you pointed it out that it seemed like your talking to a croud and not an individual, the conversation turned hostile real quick and the child was usually put back into their cell/room.
You see, the problem is the ENTIRE JUVENILE SYSTEM. Once a kid is put on 'probation' or 'intensive supervision' its a feeding frenzy for every organization around the juvenile system to grab as much money as possible (thats how I was sent to JDC La Crosse 13 times total, placed into a group home, forced into day treatment at the FCC, Kicked out of the group home for not being around due to my job at Sparta Mc Donalds, forced to quit said job when the courts deemed me unruly and sent me to North West Passage Child and Adolescent Care for a 30 day assessment that actually lasted 65 days, and then immediately sent to North West Passage 2 for the next 3 months, forcing me to beg the courts to allow me to take the HSED early and test out of high school). And I'm only 1 CASE! I wasnt the only one who got trapped into a system that literally NEVER ENDS.
When a child is told for YEARS that he's nothing more than a criminal scumbag, chances are he develops criminalistic tendencies. My years in the system definitely taught me how to be a better criminal (These places are like prison in the sense that if you can steal things, or in my case know people who can steal things, you can get pretty much anything you want. In NWPCAC and NWP2 I was able to use one person who was particularly skilled in this to gain loyalty from my peers. This is something the juvenile system TAUGHT ME. The ability to use others became a habit that was hard to break, to be honest).
We need a FULL SYSTEM REMODEL, not just the walls and bars. If a kid makes a mistake, we need to help him see a better way, instead of teaching him how to hone his craft.
Just remember: Theres ALOT of money in manufacturing criminals. Hook 'em while their young, as big tobacco used to say...

let it go

I would like to thank the previous gentleman for his insight. I knew that juveniles had different rights, but I did not know they could be held without being told what they did wrong or for how long. That seems almost inhuman. Even the worst kid at school usually has an idea why they are getting detention. I wish more parents cared as much as yours does to go see there child and to take financial responsibility for their child. Good luck to you and your mother in the future. One thing the article didn't mention was if these young people get to go and worship or practice some form of guidance. Maybe they need guidance from others to help them through the troubling period and showing them there is hope and you can make it.


Also consider this: A lot of these kids are locked up without actually having committed any crime. I was put in 'Secure Detention' (cells) for being late to class, or not completing a homework assignment while on the Intensive Supervision Program (ISP). Showing up even a minute late for class often resulted in a week or two of secure detention (where it was later discovered that all schoolwork done while incarcerated was NOT accepted by Sparta High School)


People don't see this as a problem because until now its a closed system. A parent usually can only get into a prison-style closed room with a phone or at best a conference room. If more parents could see the conditions their children are placed in. How their treated once their in there. The food they eat (trust me, its not good).


That looks like a 21st century medieval dungeon. No wonder America has the highest reincarnation rate in the world. What a disgraceful use of community tax dollars. Letting them hang themselves would be the human thing to do in that rat lab for children.


Jeez, looking at those cells, I might become suicidal myself. How about making them look at bit more fit for a human being? Where are the psychologists in this equation? Telling a kid they're bad or criminal or will never amount to anything does far more harm than people realize. Kids are resilient, but they're also sponges. They absorb everything. How about making those cells look less like cells and more like bedrooms? How about an outdoor space that has some grass and flowers and a tree or two? How about a decent bed and mattress? Good grief, this isn't rocket science. If they're truly interested in preventing suicide, they need to change the environment that contributes to causing a child to be that depressed. And that isn't just babysitting them to make sure they don't self-harm. It's taking away the reasons why they would consider it. Don't use concrete blocks! I hate those, whether in jail or nursing homes. They're depressing! Paint the walls a cheerful yellow. Use color for mood therapy! Collaborate with some psychologists who know a thing or two about this. Nature is restorative. Use it! Again, it's not rocket science, but it does require common sense.


Good post. Thank you!


The entire juvenile system needs to be reformed. I made a mistake as a freshman in highschool (discovered marijuanna, went to school under the influence, to be honest). After that I was put in Intensive Supervision Program (ISP). If I was late to class: 2 weeks in secure. Fell asleep during class: 2 weeks in juvie. I needed my inhaler once and a teacher said I was abusing it, and guess what: 2 weeks in juvie. I had a job at Mc Donalds while living in the group home in sparta. I worked any hours I could get and as a result got kicked out of the grouphome and sent to NWP (Northwest Passage: A juvinile bootcamp like facility). The point is, the entire time (again: 2 YEARS COLLECTIVELY) I was told I was nothing but criminal scum. All I would ever amount to was criminal scum. Everything I was doing was wrong, everything I thought was wrong, and I should be ashamed for feeling any different. This is the juvenile system in LA CROSSE WISCONSIN!!! after turning 17 I begged the courts to let me test out of high school because it turned out Sparta High doesnt count schoolwork done in a juvenile detention center (2 YEARS WORTH OF WORK FOR NOTHING) and wanted me to re do everything, hence my 17 year old sophmore status. This is what needs to change, the next generation makes a mistake and suffer for it for the rest of their lives, their families suffer for the rest of their lives. My mother is still paying a bill over $10000 because of all this. I still have nightmares to this day (almost 30 years old btw) about some of the things I saw and had to do while locked away. Today, Iam a contributing member to the community. I volunteer at various charities and help my neighbors. I have a family of my own and I work my butt off to provide for them (again, had to test out of high school so employment options are limited). Not because I was reformed, but because I refuse to become what they told me I would. I am not a criminal today out of spite, nothing more. Thats the problem, these kids are beaten down physically (FCC has a history of abuse that never gets reported due to the kids families low social status or financial restrictions, If a kid gets hurt in Juvie its his fault for being there as far as the courts are concerned), and emotionally and they wonder why these kids think suicide is the only viable option. Also consider this: Kids dont have the same rights as adults do. A kid can get placed in detention and NEVER FIND OUT WHY OR HOW LONG THEY WILL BE THERE. The problem isnt the architecture, its La Crosse and surrounding counties that need to be reformed.


Thanks for taking the time to write and for all the good things you have done in later life.


No problem. This, like most things, is a multifaceted problem, but one that causes countless kids to loose hope early and simply give up on a society they feel doesn't care about them. My mother is the real reason I was able to turn things around, but others arent so lucky to have a supportive parental figure. And the numbers of kids turning to crime, drugs, violence, suicide, etc. is growing every minute


Ok be ready for the ignoramuses who will say "let them hang themselves", why should the tax payer pay for them, its their choice, I'll provide the rope. Let the count down begin, 10...9...8....

Mr Wizard

Ya, we shouldn't make it seem like a jail or nuffin' like that. When they graduate to prison it won't be such a shock.


Exactly my thoughts, those thsat say let 'em themselves, OD on drugs, etc. would get upset if under insured people crashing motorcycles wearing no helments were denied treatment for brain or spinal injuries (paid by taxpayers). That's different, right?

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