The boys' home, run by the Jackson County nonprofit Community Works, is still dealing with the aftermath of the largest runaway incident in its history, according to officials.

On election night last month, as Ashland overwhelmingly voted to raise taxes to support social services, six boys ran away from a treatment facility on Walker Avenue.

The teens dropped their chores and bolted from the Lithia Springs Boys Home at about 9:15 p.m.

Within 36 hours, they had been found and placed in the custody of the Oregon Youth Authority. But the boys home, run by the Jackson County nonprofit Community Works, is still dealing with the aftermath of the largest runaway incident in its history, according to officials.

"We're kind of looking at this and taking a step back and wondering, what is going on here?" said Dan Murphy, president and chief executive officer of Community Works.

"It seems to be that there was an unusual nexus of personalities and treatment issues that these youth were facing and they figured out a way to leave together."

Last year, police took 12 reports of runaways from the home, according to Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness.

This year, eight boys already have fled the home for troubled teens.

On Jan. 16, two boys left the home, stole a car in the 400 block of Laurel Street and headed north, according to police. They were arrested the next day on Highway 58 near Crescent Lake. The totaled car was nearby.

The car had been parked outside K. Moore's home and belonged to her son. After she heard about the second runaway incident on Jan. 26, she became concerned, she said.

"I thought, is nobody paying attention or is there a problem? Why is this happening?" she said.

The boys' home is not a secure facility, said Michelle Brooks, administrator of education and operations for Lithia Springs programs. Staff members are not allowed to lock the doors. They're not allowed to restrain the boys. The teens are, essentially, free to leave; but if they do, they're reported as runaways and may be barred from returning.

"Any kid in the program can decide to open the front door and walk out it and that's what these boys did," Brooks said.

One of the boys involved in the car theft case returned to the boys' home afterward. About a week later, he participated in the second runaway incident, according to police. He will not be returning to the home again, Brooks said.

Three of the six who fled on Jan. 26 have returned to the home, after they were given clearance by the Oregon Youth Authority. The state agency has barred the others from coming back, Brooks said.

Community Works is collaborating with the youth authority to try to prevent future runaway incidences, Murphy said.

"We're in a reflective mode," he said. "What have we learned from this experience and are there some things we can do differently?"

Murphy believes some of the boys in the home encouraged the others to run away. Only four boys were left in the home after the six left.

The home can hold up to 13 boys, age 13 to 18.

All of the boys at the home have criminal records, but have committed minor crimes and have been given clearance to attend a non-secure treatment program, Brooks said.

The youth authority has agreed to pay Community Works up to $1.08 million to run the boys home for the 2009-2011 biennium, said Jim Sellers, OYA spokesman. That money comes from state and federal sources, he said. If Measures 66 and 67 had failed in the January election, the youth authority would have faced "significant budget reductions," Sellers said.

The boys, and their counterparts at the Lithia Springs Girls Home, attend an alternative school on Mistletoe Road that combines structured learning with behavioral therapy.

At the home, there is more structure: 20 minutes to eat a snack, 30 minutes to do chores, an hour for recreational time, an hour for a behavioral therapy group.

"Youth want boundaries," Brooks said. "Even if they say they don't, they do."

About 90 percent of the boys have been abused in the past, often by family members, Brooks said.

Despite the recent runaway incidences, the home has a high success rate, Murphy said. Roughly 12 percent of boys treated at the home return to crime. Statewide, about 35 percent of youths who have received treatment or have been in custody return to crime, according to Murphy.

The youth authority gave the boys home its highest rating, "highly effective," in 2009, Sellers said.

"Lithia Springs operates an effective residential program of treatment and education for youth offenders," he said in an e-mail message.

The home, located near Ashland Middle School, has received few complaints from community members in its 20 years of existence, Murphy said.

"Ashland has really rallied to help these boys," he said.

Police are not alarmed by the number of runaways from the facility, Holderness said. Officers haven't received any recent complaints about the home from neighbors, he said.

"It's not unusual at all for these kinds of facilities to have runaways," he said. "Generally it's because (the teens) are not interested in following the rules anymore."

It can be difficult to predict which teens will fare well in the program, Murphy said.

"You hope to err on the side of community safety, but sometimes you don't always know if kids are ready to engage in this community program," he said. "It's at least as much art as it is science."

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.