Three-Year Nightmare

When Dean Honomichl got into trouble at age 14, his parents went to the state of South Dakota for help. What they got in return was a three-year nightmare.


This is the story of an emotionally troubled young man and others like him who ended up in a juvenile justice program that critics have called inhumane and abusive. Correspondent Vicki Mabrey reports.


Now 17, Dean Honomichl entered South Dakota's juvenile system three years ago with a clear, documented diagnosis of psychological problems ranging from attention deficit disorder to bipolar disorder, or manic depression. On top of that, he also suffered from Tourette's syndrome, a neurological condition that causes uncontrollable tics. For that he was teased and he started lashing out, at school and, his parents say, at home.


Dean was the youngest of four. His parents, Dennis and Kathleen Honomichl, had an on-again, off-again marriage, and his mother had a drinking problem. At age 14, Dean was out of control, staying out past curfew and drinking as well. His parents had him evaluated at a private psychiatric hospital.


"I always thought in my mind there's somebody out there who could get into the back of Dean's mind and help him get his life straight," said his father.


But the counseling and medication he needed were beyond their means. In desperation, they turned to a judge in 1997 and asked him to make Dean a ward of the state. He could live at home, but in effect, South Dakota became his parent.


"I thought once he was in their custody - you know, he had his problems - they would put him in the right program to help with his problems," said Kathleen Honomichl. "And that didn't happen."


Two months after the state took over, Dean broke into school, to retrieve his cigarette lighter, he said. In the process he stole $100. His punishment: four months at the state's brand-new boot camp for juvenile delinquents.


Psychologist Larry Brendtro, who studies juvenile justice systems worldwide, examined Dean and the treatment he received, at his family's request.


"We know from the science of studying boot camps that there's a certain group of kids that can thrive there," says Brendtro. "And there are two groups of kids that don't do well. Mildly delinquent kids end up becoming criminalized through the process, and seriously troubled kids end up more troubled, and Dean Honomichl represents both those elements."


In boot camp, although Dean was on psychiatric medication and received some group counseling, from his drill instructors, he received the standard regimen: strict discipline, pushups and running. And when he disobeyed, he had to exercise more.
"I was real hard on him. If he were screwing around, I would correct him every time," said Joe Thyne, one of Dean's drill instructors at the camp.


Said instructor Tony Assid, "This kid probably would not have went through all this with a lot of the staff members, had that staff known that this kid had som disorders."


Halfway through the program, even the director admitted that boot camp and Dean were a mismatch. "He simply refuses to function for more than five minutes at a time," he wrote in a mid-term report. "Honestly, the only thing he does correctly is sleep. I do not feel boot camp will benefit this individual."


Nonetheless, Dean was kept in the program for the full four months, despite staff complaints. Said Thyne, "We all talked to our supervisors about having him removed from the program, but stayed."


South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow, the architect of the state's boot camp program, refused to talk about Dean's experiences, citing a gag order in the case of a girl who died at boot camp after being forced to run two miles in the hot sun.


But he did say this: "Most of the parents have 15, 16 years to screw up these kids. Most of these parents have had a long period of time in which the kids have had very lousy parenting."


Janklow has been a believein boot camps since he was a juvenile in trouble, and the Marines turned him around. He is its biggest defender, though he does admit it is not a blanket solution: "Not all kids respond well to boot camp."


The Honomichls say they did all they could as parents. "I can't say we were model parents. We have our faults. But he was not abused or neglected. He never did run away from home, never did skip out in school. (He was) just very active, and nobody could keep up with him," said Dennis Honomichl.


Initially, Dean's mother consented to sending him to boot camp. "It would give him, show him some discipline," said Kathleen Honomichl.


But she says the treatment had the opposite effect: "He just seemed to rebel against everything."


Nonetheless, corrections officials seemed to paper over Dean's boot camp failure with a graduation certificate. But instead of sending him home, the state decided to monitor his medications and give him counseling at its new youth prison at Plankinton, a place that had precious few counselors for a very needy population.


The decision to place Dean in the juvenile prison drew sharp criticism from psychologist Brendtro: "He needs individual counseling. And he's put in the prison, which will ensure he will not get individual counseling."


Dean claims he never saw a counselor or psychiatrist while in the prison. There were classes but he was unable to attend them. "I was in the lock-down so I never went to school," said Dean. "I just sit in my cell and sleep. The longest time was 28 days."


"Parents would go to jail for doing many of these kinds of things that are going on," said Brendtro. "You could not lock your kid 28 days, you know, in a closet. You could not take away bedding during the night, because of some misbehavior during the day."


And Dean misbehaved repeatedly. He ripped up his mattress; he dismantled the sink, flooding his cell. He refused to take his medicine, and kicked and spit at guards. The guard responded with more punishment.


Eventually, Dean turned on himself. "I put a pencil in there to get out, when I was at the juvenile prison - to get out. To get out of the juvenile prison I stuck a pencil in there," said Dean pointing to an inch-long scar on his forearm.


Before Janklow became governor, South Dakota used to send a kid like Dean to private treatment programs - now they're sent to state-run facilities. The governor's spokesman, Bob Mercer, explained the reasoning behind the change in policy. "Those private placement settings cost about a third more than the state," said Mercer.


"It's about serving more kids," he said. "It's about using the money more efficiently. The governor has greatly increased the budget, No. 1. No. 2, he's tried to find more efficiently ways to use the money that he has. Private placement costs considerably more than state placement."


In October 1999, Dean and three others went on a rampage. The boys flooded and caused $30,000 in damage to the isolation unit at Plankinton.


Gov. Janklow called it a riot in a press conference that night: "What we're dealing with is the dredges of the juvenile society in South Dakota."


Dean was sentenced to seven years, but the court found the state of South Dakota guilty as well.


The judge in the case said Gov. Janklow's Department of Corrections "did not have the necessary programs and services to meet their educational, psychiatric and emotional needs."


Mercer responded to the judge's statement, saying, "Do we need more? Sure. We do. We need to make changes. We've made changes. We made changes before any of this came up."


Dean will be allowed to serve his seven-year sentence in a private treatment facility, if one will take him.


Maybe then he'll finally get what his parents first sought three years ago: psychiatric help.


Will this be the last of his troubles with tRAhe law?


Said Dean, "I'll be abiding by laws and stuff. I don't wanto go down that road no more. (I've) been locked up long enough."

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