NASELLE — During his first week on the job in early April, Naselle Youth Camp Superintendent Pat Escamilla was walking across campus when he saw a group of young men playing flag football. On a whim, he joined the game for a few minutes.
After seven years as the top administrator in the Clark County Juvenile Court system, Escamilla, 58, is ready to take a more personal approach to helping troubled kids.
“I just really want to reintegrate with people. I want to have an open-door policy. I want to be out on the campus, and I want to be a resource,” Escamilla said in an April 13 interview at NYC.
Escamilla is the camp’s first permanent superintendent since Darryl Poston left in 2012, according to Wash
of Social and Health Services spokesperson Chris Wright. The DSHS Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA) runs three juvenile detention facilities, including NYC, a medium-security 81-bed facility for older boys and young men. Since Poston’s departure, there have been “acting superintendents”, Wright said. The last one was Heoun (Greg) Do. DSHS started looking for a permanent superintendent nine months ago.
A Southern California native, Escamilla earned his undergraduate degree at California State University Fullerton, and later earned a master’s degree in public administration from City University.
During his senior year at CSF, Escamilla took a vacation in Maui, and met his future wife — a nursing student from Portland. The two courted through the U.S. mail, and after graduation, Escamilla moved to Oregon to be with his bride. In 1982, he started working for Clark County’s juvenile justice system.
“I worked my way from a detention officer to probation counselor to management level,” Escamilla said. In 2008, he was promoted to Juvenile Court administrator.
An evolving approach
Escamilla’s career has coincided with a period of great change in his field. In the early years, he said, detention workers usually didn’t have specialized training or skills. Kids in “the system” were treated with a one-size-fits-all approach that usually emphasized punishment, rather than rehabilitation.
“I think people are getting smarter with crime,” Escamilla said. He is proud that during the last 20 years, Clark County has embraced a progressive philosophy called “restorative justice.”
“In a restorative approach you want to hold youth accountable in a meaningful way, make amends, and build skills,” Escamilla said. “We do want to acknowledge the victim and the community — we want to make sure the young people have an opportunity to redeem themselves to the community.”
People in law enforcement and social services now have a better understanding of how mental illness, poverty, addiction and trauma affect young people, and they are using a growing body of research to guide their decisions, Escamilla said. Today, young offenders are more likely to receive individualized treatment for issues like truancy, or difficulty dealing with anger. The goal is to equip offenders to find employment and stability after release.
“We know so much more about adolescent brain development now,” Escamilla said.
Escamilla has been involved in a variety of respected initiatives, and has been active in industry groups and community outreach efforts, but he has occasionally received criticism for his work too.
According to the Vancouver Columbian, staffing shortages in the juvenile detention facility in 2014 led his administration to spend heavily on overtime pay. In spring 2015, the county’s Juvenile Detention Officers’ Guild criticized Escamilla for not hiring fast enough, and gave him and his management colleagues a vote of no confidence. Escamilla said the shortages were temporary, and occurred as the result of a “perfect storm” of employee leave, policy changes and a scarcity of qualified applicants.
In 2016, Escamilla was one of several people named in a lawsuit from a former employee who alleged that she was the victim of gender discrimination and retaliation tactics. The county settled the suit out of court. Escamilla said all the parties signed agreements that prohibit them from discussing the suit or settlement.
Those upsets don’t characterize his time in Clark County, Escamilla said, adding that he still feels a lot of passion for his work.
“I feel really good about my 33 years in the juvenile court. But there was still some kind of fire in the belly. There were still things I wanted to do, outside of that court process,” Escamilla said. Even though NYC isn’t officially a “restorative justice” program, he felt that it was a place where staff are doing the right things to help residents. For example, he said, NYC’s Department of Natural Resources firefighting and forestry training program gives participants real skills, and a chance to meaningfully contribute to society.
After careful consideration, Escamilla felt a sense of “total peace” about coming to NYC.
“I really wanted to be energized, and that’s where I’m at now,” he said.
Escamilla, who has two adult children, is currently staying in temporary housing, but he and his wife are hoping to buy property in Ilwaco.
Escamilla said he “learned a ton” during his first week, while learning how the 24/365 operation works. Escamilla’s first priority will be getting to know the staff, residents and community. Then he wants to evaluate operations, to make sure things are running efficiently.
In the past, budget-woes have led legislators and DSHS officials to seriously consider closing NYC. Escamilla said DSHS officials told him the camp is staying open for the foreseeable future.
“I’ve asked that question,” Escamilla said. “The answer I’m getting is, ‘Right now, there’s no discussion to close this campus.’ That’s important to me.” He pointed out that years ago, NYC was one of seven or eight state juvenile facilities. Now it is one of just three surviving programs, and is the only one that has the DNR occupational programs.
“People here value that — certainly the community does. That is one reason why I think people came and said, ‘We can’t close this campus.’”
With that in mind, Escamilla plans to advocate for money to improve the aging facilities.
“I know this is an older campus, and I tell you, the maintenance people can do amazing things. But somehow, there has to be increased capital to get things where they should be,” he said.
One of his top long-term priorities is to address any racial and ethnic disparities at the camp — state data shows that minority youths are badly overrepresented in the court system. According to DSHS, youth of color make up about 39 percent of Washington’s general population, but 55 percent of the population in JRA programs.
“We do have a disproportionate amount of black kids and brown kids [incarcerated at NYC],” Escamilla said. “I’m not talking about free passes. But is there a way to even the playing field?”
And of course, he wants to make sure residents continue to receive interventions that give them a real shot at thriving on The Outside.
“We want you to be a better citizen exiting Naselle than when you came in,” Escamilla said.