As the costs of institutionalizing criminals escalates, local elected officials and concerned community members debate the continued use of 10 state juvenile facilities that require transporting children out of county to places like Muncie and Kokomo.

Although secure detention is used sparingly, court-ordered shelter placement and treatment generate large numbers. According to the Monroe County Juvenile Probation Report for 2003, of the 880 referred cases, 200 were sent to secure detention, eight to the Indiana Boys School and three to the Indiana Girls School.

A task force, created to discuss the need for a juvenile facility in Monroe County, has initiated costly consultations. Due to the scope of the problems, no quick decisions are forthcoming. But concerns about limited bed space and planning for future increases have been identified.

Monroe County Council Vice President Sophia Travis believes a vision is needed, "not just a template of tables and spreadsheets with promises for exact solutions."

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"Children are not widgets," says Ron Thompson, director of the Monroe County Youth Services Bureau ( YSB ). "Large facilities that enjoy economy of scale savings do not necessarily translate to good treatment."

An acquaintance of Travis' faced losing a psychiatric program to hospital cuts with no insurance for her son. After committing repeated offenses, the son was placed in an out-of-town detention center. Travis complains of the mother's struggle just "to let him know he is loved."

Distance prevented the mother from consistently checking on her son's school progress. She worries that he will be further behind academically when he returns home. Because the state charges guardians for the time their kids are in the system, the family owes thousands of dollars and is even less able to save.

Travis knows troubled youth face a reality of long-term problems that must be addressed, like chronic illnesses, with serious treatment and possible relapses. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound a cure," she says.

Recent questions about the effectiveness of current placements have been matched with caution on alternatives. Travis is wary about channeling tax money to private businesses and warns of lobbying pressure for large buildings.

It is critical to emphasize correction, not detention, she says. If there is no rehabilitation, confinement produces more problems.

"No matter how you slice it, secure detention is a jail," says Travis, who is against all-in-one options that overprocess and punish everyone. She hopes for a more tailored plan, which might convert or revitalize an existing area.

Travis wants the final project to be a customized alternative that can evolve in scope. A youth campus, for example, could utilize internships with social courses and research components at Indiana University.

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At-risk-youth are often bounced to group homes and detention centers. The Youth Services Bureau 24-hour shelter provides professional resources for troubled youth, including transitioning runaways and homeless teens into long-term after care.

According to the Youth Services Bureau of Monroe County 2004 End of the Year Report, 386 intakes resulted in a daily population average of 11, nearly 40 percent of which required antidepressant or antipsychotic medications.

Children under the custody of the Office of Family and Children are granted extended admission or short "time-outs" at the shelter. Thompson says he tries to make the best accommodations, but is faced with limits due to the loss of key funding, such as a 2003 grant that accounted for 20 percent of the annual budget.

Thompson says the YSB is an invaluable service to local government. He credits the proactive counselors with identifying signs of molestation, or "family secrets." This leads to Monroe County's rate for abuse and neglect reported to Child Protective Services doubling the state average.

"The 21st Century is very fast paced and children are more at risk than ever," warns Thompson. Exposure to a college environment adds further pressure.

According to the Juvenile Probation Report of 2003, of the 200 secure detentions, 80 were for substance related offenses, with more than half of the family incomes over $30,000, the highest bracket possible.

As a musician, Travis feels the profound culture of Bloomington's intimate community. She hopes a passion of a clear mission will help the public understand the complexity and create something unique.

Although a new center may not seem justified by numbers or higher taxes, Travis says, "We can't ignore the fact that they are children in need. They are our own."

Rachel Miller can be reached at .