One of 9 2018 'Unsung Heroes'

At-risk teen advocate Andrew Montoya named a 2018 'Unsung Hero'

Making moves

By John Miller
Posted 10/12/18

Andrew Montoya grasped a set of dice in a loose fist and gave them a shake before his roll, uncertain as ever as to how they might land, but sure the two teens dressed in jail blues on either side of …

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One of 9 2018 'Unsung Heroes'

At-risk teen advocate Andrew Montoya named a 2018 'Unsung Hero'

Making moves

Posted

Andrew Montoya grasped a set of dice in a loose fist and gave them a shake before his roll, uncertain as ever as to how they might land, but sure the two teens dressed in jail blues on either side of the game board stood little chance.

He flung the little bone-colored cubes, and they all watched as they hit the cardboard, tumbled, shifted and settled flat.

The black dots came up. Six. Montoya moved in his uniform to slide his piece to a valuable square of real estate. After a few turns, he had bought and built on properties that seemed to position him for an easy win.

As they circled the board, the youth detainees — cousins from Colfax County who had picked up petty crimes — shared little pieces of their stories, minute details hidden in jokes or brief anecdotes that suggested why they had wound up at the Taos County Juvenile Detention Center in the first place.

They reminded Montoya, 39, of friends he had grown up with in a neighborhood of tract homes in San Jose, California. There, Montoya said he had known kids who became involved in criminal activity or drug use at a young age. Some wound up homeless, often because their parents worked so many jobs or were so deep in addiction it was like they weren’t around at all.

Pretty soon, Montoya was at the schoolyard in San Jose again, hearing familiar voices in kids he’d only just met.

He’d go bankrupt listening to the conversation.

“I had my money all organized,” Montoya recalled. “I knew where all my properties were … Maybe they had it memorized because they’d played it so many times. Bottom line was, they killed me.”

He checked in with his supervisor down the hall. “I should be working,” he said.

“You are working,” they replied. “You’re listening to everything they say.”

It was Montoya’s first day as an officer at the old youth jail in Taos County, a clean, industrial-looking facility located behind the adult jail.

Some of the adult detainees on the other side of the complex had started in the same place as the teens Montoya met that day, playing board games or shooting hoops in the recreation yard. Some would go on to commit more serious crimes later in life while others would come to the youth jail once, maybe twice, then Montoya would never see them again.

He returned to the youth detention center for the next 11 years, attaining the rank of lieutenant by the time it moved to its new location at the Taos County Courthouse Complex on Albright Street.

Throughout his career, Montoya dedicated himself to keeping youth out of the jail while striving to keep its doors open for at-risk youth that still needed support in the counties the jail served: Taos, Mora, Union, Colfax and Clay.

His first day on the job changed his view as to what youth detention ought to be, but during an interview in 2015 for a job at a youth detention center in Sonoma County, California, he said he learned about what he describes as “evidence-based practices.”

The jail director showed him programs they had created for youth that sought to equip them with the stability, skills and confidence that could help set them on a better course.

“It was simple stuff: teaching kids how to tie a tie, teaching the kids to cook, teaching the kids how to be healthy,” Montoya said.

He turned the job down, but the programs left an impression. He returned to the youth jail in Taos with the intention to model his own style of detention after what he had seen in California.

“I started trying to bring in as many volunteer-based programs as I could,” he said. “I really thought I was going to have a budget for all of this, but what I found was that there were a lot of people in the community that were willing to volunteer and make these changes happen.”

He recruited members of the Taos community to teach classes. Metta Theatre Director Bruce McIntosh came in two days a week to teach acting and improv. A nurse would come in on Wednesdays to teach basic health and answer questions some detainees couldn’t ask elsewhere. On Thursdays, Suki Dalury would come to teach yoga. Volunteers from the local school district would come in to teach Monday through Friday.

Montoya saw the programs become successful, but partly due to that success, the number of youth at the jail began to dwindle.

“We had capacity to hold 18,” he said. “Twelve males and six females. We were rarely at capacity.”

The positive outcomes Montoya was achieving raised a question as to whether the high cost of running the youth jail — just under $900,000 a year, he estimated — justified keeping it open.

On May 15, the Taos County Board of Commissioners voted to close it down.

But since the facility shut its doors June 30, Montoya has been working to reopen the vacated space as a residential treatment center for at-risk youth.

This summer, he and members of Nonviolence Works in Taos have been in touch with Michael Bronson, who works at the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Division, which operates a residential center in Albuquerque. They proposed they partner to create a similar treatment center to serve Northern New Mexico.

“Residential treatment would stretch a lot further because there are a lot more kids that need that than need detention,” Montoya said.

Montoya envisions a renovation of the youth jail that would make it feel more like a home, where kids dealing with addiction issues, family trouble or other problems can have a safe space to go.

The lieutenant hopes to bring back programs previously offered to youth detainees, but he’d also like to take residents on “field trips” — into the mountains to go hiking, or to the river to go fishing, activities he partook in when he would come visit his relatives in Taos County on summer break from school in San Jose.

But while he continues to work toward that goal with Nonviolence Works, he says it’s up to the people of Taos County to form a community “that really pulls together” to look out for its at-risk youth.

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