Originally published May 17, 2018 at 04:30a.m., updated May 17, 2018 at 11:26a.m.
The state's two juvenile jails in Dermott remain dangerous for youths locked up there, a watchdog group told officials last month.
Staff members from Dermott's Juvenile Treatment Center and the Juvenile Correctional Facility seem "terrified of ... youths and accordingly have no control over them," Disability Rights Arkansas inspectors found.
The nonprofit's April 24 letter to the Division of Youth Services outlined concerns with the staffs' ability to handle detained teenagers and workers' reliance on local police to subdue youths after they failed to de-escalate disruptions.
At times, police officers used chemical irritants, such as pepper spray, to stop potential riots and fights, Thomas Nichols, the group's attorney, wrote in the letter.
Dermott Police Department call logs show that between January and April staff members at the lockups asked officers to help with at least eight separate incidents, including "riots," youths hitting and physically threatening staff members, and escape attempts. Most of these events occurred on weekends.
"It's out of control at the camp," a call log entry dated April 5 reads. Officers refer to the Dermott Juvenile Treatment Center as "the camp."
The facilities house up to a total of 62 youths who have been adjudicated for committing serious offenses.
In a response letter dated May 1, the Youth Services Division shared how it was addressing Disability Rights Arkansas' findings:
• Staff schedules have been modified so veteran workers are present at later hours, when serious disruptions are more likely to occur. Many staff members are recent hires with less than three months' experience and are "still learning how to properly address negative behaviors," Youth Services Director Betty Guhman said in the letter.
• On April 25, division officials visited Dermott to train correctional workers about verbal de-escalation and physical intervention. The training will continue.
• The division is reviewing all of its policies regarding the treatment of confined youths and will focus on drafting a standardized policy on how staff uses restraints and chemical irritants and calls local law enforcement.
• The agency will hire a "Facility Services Liaison," who will provide enrichment, recreational and other extracurricular activities for the youths at Dermott. The liaison will also lead a curriculum that teaches youths social skills. Interviews for the position took place on May 3, and an applicant has been selected, an agency spokesman told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
"It is very helpful to get immediate feedback," Guhman's letter to the Disability Rights group said. "We look forward to updating you on additional efforts to improve programming at the Dermott facilities."
Nichols said he was encouraged by the youth agency "taking ownership of its problems."
But the watchdog group's concerns remain, he added, especially regarding how often police are called to subdue the teenagers in custody.
"This increases the divide between at-risk youth and law enforcement," he said. "These kids aren't necessarily on the path to prison; these are kids who the court system thinks need mental health treatment, kids who they think can be saved."
During their April visit, Disability Rights inspectors noted that Dermott workers still resorted to restraints for youths, such as leg shackles, even though the Youth Services Division hasn't drafted a plan on standardizing use of restraints and chemical irritants -- a request the nonprofit has made for years, Nichols said.
Disability Rights has federal authority to investigate facilities that house people with disabilities.
In 2015, state officials investigated Southeast Arkansas Youth Services, a Magnolia-based nonprofit running Dermott at the time, after a youth's collarbone was fractured while a worker tried to restrain him.
The Department of Human Services, which oversees the youth agency, took over operation of the Dermott facilities and five other youth lockups in December 2016, ousting the nonprofits that had been operating them on the state's behalf.
Earlier this year, the Youth Services Division hired the Center for Children's Law and Policy to study the state's juvenile correctional facilities and the needs of the families and children involved in the juvenile justice system. The center is a national organization that focuses on reducing the needless incarceration of children.
The review cost $73,678. It began in March and is scheduled to end in mid-September.
Guhman said the center's study will help the agency figure out how to carry out these goals: assessing youths before and after they're in state custody, reducing sentencing lengths and increasing community programs as an alternative to incarceration, especially for children considered less of a risk to their communities.
Advocates working to overhaul Arkansas' juvenile justice system seek to lower the state's youth incarceration rate.
During an April 27 meeting of the Arkansas Supreme Court Commission on Children, Youth and Families and the Youth Justice Reform Board, members approved a set of principles intended to shape a juvenile justice legislative proposal expected to reach lawmakers during pre-filing in December.
One stated goal of the proposal is to "reduce reliance on secured confinement" -- essentially closing lockups and placing troubled youths in community programs instead.
It costs Arkansas nearly $87,000 to lock up one child for a year, based on 2017 state records -- roughly $238 a day. The fiscal 2019 budget allotted $27.6 million of the youth agency's $49 million budget to state-run juvenile-detention facilities.
Tom Masseau, Disability Rights' executive director and a member of the joint juvenile justice panel, says he wants to see both Dermott juvenile sites go first.
The group monitors conditions at Dermott more often than other juvenile correctional facilities and receives more complaints about Dermott than other places, he said. Disability Rights inspectors made a surprise visit to Dermott on April 11, and another visit has been scheduled.
"There's momentum moving forward," and some facilities could be closed in the foreseeable future, he said.
Nichols says the state must have a plan before closing down the treatment centers, otherwise "these youths will just pile up" in Alexander, the site of the Arkansas Juvenile Treatment and Assessment Center.
Amy Webb, a spokesman for the Human Services Department, said the state's seven lockups were "almost completely full" and that it's too early to talk about closing Dermott.
"To shut down one of our facilities... without proper planning and discussions with both the judiciary and our community stakeholders will only result in us making one of our existing facilities larger," Webb said. "We would prefer to use the information gained from our current review to make a comprehensive plan that outlines how to move forward."
A Section on 05/17/2018
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