Tyler Gladfelter, 16, of York City, cleans graffiti off the Route 30 bridge over Pleasant Valley Road as part of a community service project.
Tyler Gladfelter, 16, of York City, cleans graffiti off the Route 30 bridge over Pleasant Valley Road as part of a community service project. (John A. Pavoncello photo)

Since the locks have been removed from the doors, the most noteworthy "runner" from the York County Youth Development Center is the boy who won the 5K the counselors entered him in last year.

He crossed the finish line first, sporting a pair of Chuck Taylors because they were the closest thing he had to running shoes.

And though these kids would have been locked up as "delinquents" under the old-school system, they were allowed to take part in and took first runner-up in the York Jaycees annual chili cook-off.

They wouldn't have been able to leave their Springettsbury Township facility under the old system, let alone to handle knives and be encouraged to run.

New model: But residents watched in bemusement a few years ago as workers drilled out the locking mechanisms from the doors, representing a culture shift to a more treatment-oriented approach at the facility.

The new organizational theory, called The Sanctuary Model, allows counselors to address the trauma kids have been through instead of focusing on punishment and containment, said counselor Tony Zorbaugh, who has worked at the center for 11 years.

"It's not a detention center; it's a community center," he said. "They still go to their home public schools. They didn't even leave before ... but we want them to be engaged in their community."

The old lockdown system worked on a tired premise that "serving time" would

change something, that "time heals all wounds," Zorbaugh said. "You get a flat tire on your car. Is that going to heal itself overnight?"

Case manager Dustin Simcoe, who has worked there 10 years, said the paradigm shift has made him feel like he's actually helping young people improve their lives.

"It was almost like a warehouse mentality, where you just wanted to get them to bed at night without any fights," he said. "But you feel like this is actually what you're supposed to do."

Interaction: Counselors take the residents to perform community service and interact in the community. They were drumming on buckets in the annual Halloween parade, and they're power-washing and transforming the Cherry Lane outdoor eating area in York City.

The service is meant to make the residents feel more connected to and invested in their communities. Some tasks come with rewards, like the free admission they get for helping to clean at the Field of Screams attraction in Lancaster County, Zorbaugh said.

The outings also offer opportunities for learning experiences, as Zorbaugh was reminded while walking past a picture, hung prominently in a long hall, of a therapeutic outing at a horse farm.

"We had a young woman with a problem following directions," Zorbaugh said. "So we gave her a horse that couldn't follow directions. You could hear her yelling, 'Help me.'"

Saves money: York County President Commissioner Steve Chronister said the shift to the new system got his vote because it makes "more sense," but it has also saved county taxpayers money.

Under the old system, the state only reimbursed the county for 50 percent of the cost of treatment, but the new preferred approach bumped up that reimbursement to between 80 percent and 90 percent.

That translates to tens of thousands of dollars, as the facility costs about $340 per day for about 400 residents per year, Zorbaugh said. The average stay is about 30 days, with residents ranging from 11 to 21 years old, he said.

About 90 percent come from York City, with offenses ranging from running away to murder, Zorbaugh said.

Success? The staff at the YDC keeps a bulletin board with newspaper clippings to keep track of past residents. Zorbaugh said the board illustrates connection between the center's work and the future of the community that produced his clients.

"Eighty percent of the homicides and violent crimes in York City since 2007 were committed by people who came here," he said, holding up a recent example. "So we believe this is where it starts. This is where we change that."

According to data provided by YDC, recidivism rates have remained stable after the change.

The rate was 20 percent for the period of 2006 through 2009, when the locks were removed and the new system was put in place. The rate was also 20 percent from 2009 through last month, according to YDC data.

-- Reach Christina Kauffman at ckauffman@yorkdispatch.com.