Associated Press, March 2, 2008
Title: “13,000 Abuse Claims in Juvie Centers”
Author: Holbrook Mohr
Student Researcher: Sarah Maddox
Faculty Evaluator: Barbara Bloom, PhD
In states across the country, child advocates have harshly condemned the conditions under which young offenders are housed—conditions that involve sexual abuse, physical abuse, and even death. The US Justice Department (DOJ) has filed lawsuits against facilities in eleven states for supervision that is either abusive or harmfully negligent. While the DOJ lacks the power to shut down juvenile correction facilities, through litigation it can force a state to improve its detention centers and protect the civil rights of jailed youth.
Lack of oversight and nationally accepted standards of tracking abuse make it difficult to know exactly how many youngsters have been assaulted or neglected.
In a nationally conducted survey, the Associated Press contacted each state agency that oversees juvenile correction centers and asked for information on the numbers of deaths as well as the numbers of allegations and confirmed cases of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by staff members since January 1, 2004. According to the survey, more than 13,000 claims of abuse were identified in juvenile correction centers around the country from 2004 through 2007—a remarkable total given that the total population of detainees was about 46,000 at the time the states were surveyed in 2007.
The worst physical confrontations have ended in death. At least five juveniles died after being forcibly placed in restraints in facilities run by state agencies or private facilities with government contracts since January 1, 2004.
The use of restraint techniques and devices and their too-aggressive application have long been controversial and came under intense scrutiny last year after the death of fourteen-year-old Martin Lee Anderson. A grainy video taken at a Florida boot camp in January 2006 showed several guards striking the teen while restraining him. On October 12, 2006, six guards and a nurse were acquitted of manslaughter charges after defense attorneys argued that the guards used acceptable tactics.
In Maryland, seventeen-year-old Isaiah Simmons lost consciousness and died after he was held to the floor face down at a privately owned facility that was contracted by the state. Prosecutors say the staff waited forty-one minutes after the boy was unresponsive to call for help. An attorney for one of the counselors said the men were only trying to prevent Simmons from hurting himself or someone else. A judge dismissed misdemeanor charges against five counselors. The state has appealed.
Other restraint-related deaths involve three boys—seventeen, fifteen, and thirteen years of age—in facilities in Tennessee, New York, and Georgia, respectively. At least twenty-four other juveniles died in correction centers between 2004 and 2007 from suicide and natural causes or preexisting medical conditions.
A drive to reform California’s juvenile justice system follows successful landmark litigation against the California Youth Authority (CYA) in April 2006. During litigation, advocates learned that conditions in many California county juvenile halls were as bad as those in the state CYA facilities. Yet as the appalling conditions in the CYA were revealed, officials shifted much of the population from the CYA facilities to the county juvenile halls.
In 2006, reported conditions in California juvenile halls included severe overcrowding, with teenagers sleeping floors; nonexistent educational opportunity; nonexistent mental healthcare or rehabilitative programs; isolation for over twenty-three hours a day for months straight; use of excessive force, including beatings and pepper sprayings; and inappropriate administration of medications.
Attorney Richard Ulmer states, “California law expressly requires that a juvenile hall not be regarded as a penal institution, but rather be a safe and supportive homelike environment. But many juvenile halls in the state are more like penitentiaries than homes.”1
Similar crises of institutional abuse against troubled youth are occurring in states across the nation.
1. Richard Ulmar, “California Juvenile Justice System in Crisis; Lawsuits to End Abuses Against Children,” PR Newswire, April 19, 2006.