Abuse at State Detention Centers (series of 3 stories)
Report Cites Abuse at State Juvenile Detention Centers
New York Times
August 25, 2009
ALBANY — Children at four juvenile detention centers in New York were so severely abused by workers that it constituted a violation of their constitutional rights, according to a report by the United States Department of Justice made public on Monday.
The findings raise the possibility of a federal takeover of the state’s entire youth detention system if the problems are not addressed.
The report caps a nearly two-year investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division into claims of excessive physical force at some of the state’s 28 juvenile residential centers, which house children who were convicted of criminal acts but are too young to serve in adult jails and prisons.
Federal investigators found that workers at the four locations — the Lansing Residential Center and the Louis Gossett Jr. Residential Center in Lansing, N.Y., and two facilities, one for boys and one for girls, at Tryon Residential Center in Johnstown, N.Y. — routinely used physical force to restrain residents, despite rules allowing force only as a last resort.
The report documented dozens of episodes at the four centers in a period of less than two years that resulted in serious injuries, including broken teeth and bones. It found that physical force was often the first response to any act of insubordination by residents, who are all under 16.
“Staff at the facilities routinely used uncontrolled, unsafe applications of force, departing from generally accepted standards,” says the report, which was given to Gov. David A. Paterson on Aug. 14. “Anything from sneaking an extra cookie to initiating a fistfight may result in a full prone restraint with handcuffs,” the report continued. “This one-size-fits-all approach has not surprisingly led to an alarming number of serious injuries to youth, including concussions, broken or knocked-out teeth, and spiral fractures” (bone fractures caused by twisting).
The investigation is the latest blow to New York’s troubled juvenile justice system, which currently detains about 1,000 youths.
In a report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union issued in September 2006, New York’s juvenile residential centers were rated among the worst in the world.
Later that year, an emotionally disturbed teenager, Darryl Thompson, died after two employees at the Tryon center pinned him down on the ground. The death was ruled a homicide, but a grand jury declined to indict the workers. The boy’s mother is suing the state.
During the same period, a separate joint investigation by the state inspector general and the Tompkins County district attorney found that the independent ombudsman’s office charged with overseeing juvenile detention centers had virtually ceased to function.
Those scandals spurred a major effort within the State Office of Children and Family Services, the department overseeing juvenile residential centers, to overhaul the system. It reconstituted the ombudsman’s office and issued clearer policies on the use of physical force, leading to a sharp drop in instances where restraints were applied. The department has also required new training for the staffs at juvenile detention centers.
Officials have also sought to close down centers that were underused and redirect resources to counseling and other services, as other states have done, though they have faced fierce resistance from public employees’ unions and their allies in the Legislature. Last year, Mr. Paterson appointed a commission to recommend further changes.
The report by federal investigators revealed that despite those changes, problems at some of the centers remain severe. Under federal law, New York has 49 days to respond with a plan of action to comply with the report’s recommendations. If the state does not meet the deadline, the Justice Department can initiate a lawsuit that could result in a federal takeover of the state’s juvenile residential centers.
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.”
Officials at the centers also routinely failed to follow state rules requiring that instances in which force is used be reviewed after the fact. In some cases, the same staff member involved in an episode conducted the review. And even when a review determined that excessive force had been used, the staff members responsible sometimes faced no punishment.
In one case, it was recommended that a youth counselor with a documented record of using excessive force should be fired after throwing a youth to the ground with such force that the youth’s chin required stitches. But after the counselor’s union intervened, the punishment was downgraded to a letter of reprimand, an $800 fine and a two-week suspension that was itself suspended.
The report also found that state officials failed to provide youths in detention with adequate counseling and mental health treatment, something the vast majority of residents require. Three-quarters of residents enter New York’s juvenile justice system with drug or alcohol problems, more than half have diagnosed psychological problems and a third have developmental disabilities, according to figures published by Office of Children and Family Services.
“The majority of psychiatric evaluations at the four facilities did not come close to meeting” professional standards, investigators determined, and “typically lacked basic, necessary information.”
In many instances, a single resident received several different or conflicting diagnoses — and correspondingly different regimens of psychotropic drugs — from different psychiatrists or counselors. The medications were dispensed without rigorous monitoring. Typically, parents were not offered an opportunity to give their informed consent for the treatment.
One 15-year-old, according to the report, was on six medications at once, with no record of an agreed-upon diagnosis or description of the symptoms the drugs were intended to target. Another resident, a boy who was mentally ill, told a doctor that he thought he might be pregnant.
“Despite this significant incident,” the report noted, “it appears that the youth’s belief that he was pregnant and the possibility that he was delusional was not communicated to the treating psychiatrist. It is unknown whether this was addressed in the youth’s individual therapy.”
New York Times
March 4, 2007
In one of Darryl Thompson's last photos, he is wearing a blue cap and gown and gripping a rolled-up diploma from Public School 360 in the Bronx. A proud smile dents his cheeks and big fake diamonds glint from his ears.
It is a sweet face tinged with mischief, not a bad reflection, his friends say, of how he lived his life.
That life ended on Nov. 18 in Johnstown, N.Y., in a bathroom of the Tryon Boys Residential Center, a juvenile rehabilitative center where he had been sent after a string of crimes, including burglary and robbery.
Darryl was angry about losing recreation privileges and pushed a staff member, according to Louise K. Sira, the Fulton County district attorney. The worker and a colleague, both of them aides assigned to monitor the boys, restrained Darryl, Ms. Sira said, pinning him to the floor face-down until he could be handcuffed. Minutes later, he stopped breathing, she said, and he died at a nearby hospital. He was 15.
A medical examiner ruled Darryl's death a homicide, Ms. Sira said on Feb. 20. While he had a heart defect, he died of an irregular heartbeat caused by the altercation. The case will be reviewed by a grand jury, but Ms. Sira said she did not consider Darryl's death intentional.
Darryl's mother, Anntwanisha Thompson, 33, disagrees. ''I believe he was murdered,'' said Ms. Thompson, who lives in an apartment building in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. ''I want them to be held accountable.''
Michael M. Albanese, a Gloversville lawyer who represents John P. Johnson and Robert Murphy, the workers who restrained Darryl, said his clients ''did what they were trained to do.'' A spokesman for the state's Office of Children and Family Services, which operates Tryon, declined to discuss Darryl's death or his behavior at Tryon.
Whatever the outcome of the grand jury review, Darryl's death has refocused attention on the use of physical restraint in state youth facilities. About 1,500 young people, mostly 12 to 18, are in the custody of the Office of Children and Family Services, which runs 31 juvenile rehabilitative facilities. As of late December, 885 of those youngsters were from New York City.
Brian Marchetti, spokesman for the agency, said physical restraint was used ''to prevent youth or staff member injury.'' Although he did not have information on how often youngsters at Tryon were restrained, he said that since 2002 there had been 122 abuse complaints filed against Tryon staff members, and that six of them were found to be valid and eight remained under investigation.
Last September, two advocacy groups -- Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union -- said in a report that they found a pattern of excessive force in a girls' center that shares Tryon's campus and in another girls' center, the Lansing Residential Center, near Ithaca. Face-down restraint was noted as a particular problem.
In recent months the agency has limited the use of physical restraint to only the most serious situations, banning it in instances where residents disobey orders or damage property. A bill pending in the state Assembly would create an independent Office of the Child Advocate to monitor youth facilities.
Changes like those afford little comfort to Darryl's family. ''They took him out of the streets supposedly to protect him, but he ends up dying,'' Ms. Thompson said. ''It's just unbelievable.''
Darryl was born on Jan. 31, 1991, just before his identical twin, David. Ms. Thompson was 17 and already had another son. Asked about the twins' father, she said simply, ''Not around.''
Darryl had a fondness for hip-hop and a wide circle of female friends, recalled a family friend, Tyesha Castle, 18. She recalled impromptu parties when Darryl and his brothers would come over to her Bronx home in Kingsbridge Heights and they would dance late into the night.
Adama Wint, 15, a baby-faced girl with braces, dated Darryl from age 12 to 14 and considers him her first love. He was playful but respectful, and once trudged through the snow to see her in a blizzard. ''He was real hard to get mad at,'' she said.
But there was another side to Darryl. He was quick to fight if he felt disrespected, friends said, and though he was not in a gang, he associated with people who were. ''Being a boy, you turn to older people on the corner,'' said Evelyn Jackson, 14, a former schoolmate of his. ''You just get caught up.''
In August 2005, Darryl was arrested for breaking into an apartment with three other young men, a police official said. Two months later, the official said, he was arrested twice within days, first for biting and punching a 13-year-old boy and then for helping rob an 11-year-old boy.
In January 2006, Ms. Thompson said, Darryl was sent to Horizon Juvenile Center, a city-run detention center in the Bronx. After getting into fights there, she said, he was moved last March to Tryon, about three hours north of the city. The 180-bed center consists of six low-slung cottages, a school, a gym, a medical center and offices. Its perimeter is rimmed with razor wire.
Ms. Thompson said she spoke with Darryl shortly before he died, and learned that he had been named student of the month. In letters, she said, Darryl rarely described his life there, focusing instead on happier times and dreaming about January 2007. That is when he was supposed to come home.
Lisa W. Foderaro
New York Times
September 25, 2006
Lansing and Tryon. They are among the most secure facilities in New York State for girls who have crossed the law -- remote state-run institutions located far from New York City, where most of their inmates are from. And to the girls who are sent there, the facilities are notorious.
''They restrain you for no reason,'' Antoinette, a 17-year-old, said in an interview last week. She was confined at Tryon Girls Center, near Albany, after she was found to have committed a robbery. ''They throw you down and mush your face into the floor,'' she said. ''It's just like having rug burns on your face. They make girls cry and are always doing strip searches.''
Antoinette, whose last name was withheld to protect her privacy, was among 30 girls whose bleak accounts of life at Tryon and at Lansing Residential Center, near Ithaca, inform a harshly critical report about the centers released today by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Human Rights Watch has investigated conditions at juvenile centers for boys elsewhere in the United States and other countries. But this was its first look at incarceration of girls, and the report's author, Mie Lewis, said she chose New York because of the size of its juvenile population and indications of problems at its institutions.
In New York State, girls represented 14 percent of the children taken into custody in 1994; 10 years later, the number had grown to more than 18 percent. A majority of the girls at Lansing and Tryon are 15 and 16, but some are as young as 12.
The 134-page report concludes that girls in the two centers, which together house about 150 girls, are being abused and neglected -- violently restrained for minor infractions, subjected to sexual harassment and assault, cut off from families, and provided little rehabilitation.
Ms. Lewis, a lawyer and Aryeh Neier Fellow at Human Rights Watch and the A.C.L.U., said she was refused access to the facilities, which are operated by the State Office of Children and Family Services. But she combed through grievance reports and other documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Law and interviewed formerly and currently incarcerated girls.
''In other countries, we are always given access and we've been able to visit the facilities and talk to kids,'' she said. ''With O.C.F.S., it's an incredibly closed and secretive agency. And then when kids are sent to these facilities, it's like they are dropped into a black hole.''
The report calls on the state to curtail the use of a face-down restraint technique, in which girls are thrust to the floor and handcuffed. The report makes numerous other recommendations, from providing better education and assuring access to mental health services to limiting male staff members in girls' living quarters.
A spokesman for the Office of Children and Family Services, Brian Marchetti, criticized Human Rights Watch and the A.C.L.U. for not providing a copy of the report to the agency before its release, as the two groups did for the news media. ''We have to question their motives,'' Mr. Marchetti said. ''Is it to improve programs for children or is it to see their name in headlines and promote their agenda?''
Mr. Marchetti said the agency provided Ms. Lewis with 5,500 pages of material and granted her an interview in April with the agency's commissioner, John A. Johnson, and senior staff members. He said that access to the facilities themselves is granted to researchers only after receipt of a research proposal and that Ms. Lewis never presented one.
As for criticisms of Lansing and Tryon, Mr. Marchetti said the agency had ''zero tolerance'' for any kind of ''sexual misconduct'' between employees and residents.
The report quotes girls who had worked as prostitutes who felt they were singled out by male staff members. A number of those girls complained of harassment, unwanted touching and sexual contact.
One girl, identified as Ebony V., who was 16 at the time of her confinement, recalled in the report an episode in which she was having sex in the office of a male staff member at Lansing when another male employee walked in on them. ''He said: 'Oh, oh, oh, oh I'm sorry' and closed the door. It's crazy, isn't it?'' the report quotes her as saying.
Mr. Marchetti also defended the educational offerings at the centers. Across the agency's facilities in general, two-thirds of the young people score below grade level in reading and math upon entering. While at the institutions, he said, they improve on average by two grade levels.
One of the most stinging criticisms leveled by the report centers on the use of a face-down restraint. The report describes how girls are seized from behind and pushed to the floor, their arms held in place or put in handcuffs. The restraint is used for such infractions as not making a bed properly or not raising one's hand before speaking, the report said.
The agency's regulations say that such restraints are to be used to prevent children from harming themselves and others, but, Ms. Lewis said, the agency's internal policy is decidedly more lax.
Mr. Marchetti said restraints were used to prevent harm and also to ''de-escalate situations.''
Asked whether they were used excessively, he said that ''all staff in Office of Children and Family Services facilities are mandated reporters,'' meaning they must report abuse to the authorities.
Juanita Crawford, 19, who spent a year and a half at Lansing after she was found guilty of reckless endangerment and conspiracy and is now an intern at the A.C.L.U., said in an interview that she was restrained after not moving quickly enough to dispose of her food tray and talking back to a staff member.
''He takes you and hooks your arms backwards with a lot of force, and it hurts, and you're dropped face down,'' she said. ''It's almost like getting tripped.''