Aug 24, 2009

Report Details Severe Abuse at NYS Juvenile Detention Facilities

In spite of many efforts at reform, New York State appears to have a long way to go in cleaning up its juvenile detention system. As an article in the NY Times describes, the United States Department of Justice publicized a report today detailing such severe abuse of juveniles by detention facility workers that they merit a violation of constitutional rights.

The report follows a two-year investigation by the DOJ that found that workers at four detention facilities, run by the state's Office of Children and Family Services, regularly used physical force to restrain the young people, even though they were only allowed to so as a last resort. In multiple instances, this use of force resulted in serious injuries, such as concussions, broken teeth, and fractured bones. From the article, some examples of the byzantine treatment these young people received:

In one case described in the report, a youth was forcibly restrained and handcuffed after refusing to stop laughing when ordered to; the youth sustained a cut lip and injuries to the wrists and elbows. One boy, after glaring at a staff member, was forced into a sitting position and his arms were secured behind his back with such force that his collarbone was broken.

Another youth was restrained eight times in three months despite signs that she might have been contemplating suicide. “In nearly every one of the eight incidents,” the report found, “the youth was engaged in behaviors such as head banging, putting paper clips in her mouth, tying a string around her neck, etc.”

Not only were there multiple instances of abuse, but when the abuse did occur, staff members at the facilities indicated did not follow the correct review procedures for disciplining employees. The Office of Children and Family Services could face federal takeover of the state juvenile detention system if it does not respond within 49 days with a plan of action.

Notably, Gladys Carrion, Commissioner of OCFS, has made some great strides in improving her agency in the past few years. She has closed detention facilities that were built to house large juvenile populations but were detaining only a few young people, she has helped to build out the alternative to detention programs in New York City that divert young people from placement at upstate facilities, and she has given new life to an ombudsman's office tasked with addressing abuse of force cases. As Ms. Carrion herself says in the article, while the agency has made a lot of progress, it is clear that there is much more work to be done.

UPDATE: The NY Times published a scathing editorial about the results of this report here as well. See also four letters to the editor from Jeremy Travis, of President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Janice L. Cooper of the National Center for Children and Poverty and Susan Wile Schwarz of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, Angela Olivia Burton Associate Professor at CUNY Law School, and David Brandt Professor Emertius of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.