When you hear the term "reflection cottage," what comes to mind? A relaxing spa getaway? A peaceful place to unwind and de-stress? What about children held against their will in solitary confinement? At the El Pueblo Residential Treatment Center in Pueblo, Colorado, "reflection cottages" are an insidious attempt to disguise bare concrete rooms where teens are held for days and weeks in isolation.
El Pueblo is a facility ostensibly dedicated to helping at-risk youth, many of whom have developmental and mental disabilities. Yet despite existing state laws, court decisions, and widely-accepted standards for the treatment of troubled youth (not to mention basic human decency), El Pueblo routinely forces children into prolonged solitary confinement in these so-called "reflection cottages." In fact, according to children who have shared their experiences with the ACLU of Colorado, many children entering the "treatment" program spend at least two days in solitary, and children are often confined for much longer as punishment for minor infractions.
While in the "reflection cottages," children are not allowed to interact with other children, go outdoors, or receive any kind of schooling. Each child sleeps on a concrete slab and must ask for permission to leave the cottage to use the bathroom.
One teen was placed at El Pueblo when she was 16 after a long history of sexual and physical abuse. She reported that when she refused to take her diabetes medication, El Pueblo punished her by placing her in solitary confinement for over a month.
Of her time spent in the reflection cottage, she said "Nobody was there to help. I just kind of stood there all day and stared at a brick wall and thought about a time when I was ten and my dad punished me by locking me in my room when I told the truth – that my grandfather had sexually abused me."
The mother of another child, who was also confined for more than a month, told us she went to El Pueblo after her developmentally disabled son called her for help, saying "Mom, I'm gonna go crazy. I gotta get out of this room." Enforcing isolation to the fullest, the El Pueblo staff refused to let her see her son or the room where he was held.
Earlier this month, the ACLU of Colorado brought this appalling, unlawful practice to the attention of the Colorado Department of Human Services. The agency opened an investigation and announced last week that it has temporarily shut down the "reflection cottages," prohibiting their use while the investigation is ongoing. Additionally, the local school board responded to the ACLU's charges by voting to add conditions to their contract with El Pueblo barring the facility from placing school district children in solitary confinement.
While these are positive developments, we will not be satisfied until El Pueblo and all other such facilities across the country permanently discontinue the use of solitary confinement for children. Such stark isolation is not treatment – it is a heartless punishment that can cause irreparable harm to the mental and emotional well-being of children.
Stories of Solitary Confinement from Children at El Pueblo
ACLU of Colorado Demands DHS End Solitary Confinement of Children
ACLU of Colorado Commends Pueblo City Schools for Acting to Protect Children
More information on this case, including ACLU of Colorado's two letters to DHS