Doing Right by the Kids: An Agreement Seeks to Improve Conditions, Care of Youth in Custody

Jun 1, 2014

Grafton Mayor Tom Thompson gives the keynote address at a graduation ceremony at the Pere Marquette Youth Center in October.
Credit Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice
Special monitoring visits to the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice recently found youth detainees mowing lawns and building shelves rather than attending educational courses. Monitors discovered youth being given medication with inadequate consent and living in rooms that were improperly maintained. Facilities were found to lack the proper staff to treat juvenile offenders with mental illnesses. 

The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) separated from the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2006 with the ambitious intent of providing a safe and recovery-focused environment to juvenile offenders. But since the split, the department has in many ways failed to reach that goal. Now it has entered into a court agreement aimed at improving safety conditions, education and mental health care for the youth in its custody. 

The IDJJ has borne the brunt of several scathing reports and a lot of bad press in the past few years. Perhaps the most shocking was a 2013 U.S. Department of Justice survey of youth offenders that found 15.4 percent of juvenile offenders in Illinois reported they had been sexually assaulted by staff or another youth while in a state facility. Reported assaults ranged from sexual harassment to rape. The national rate was 9.5 percent. Strikingly at odds with that survey, over the same time period the Department of Juvenile Justice reported that fewer than 1 percent of youth offenders experienced sexual assault while detained. 

When the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois decided to take legal action against the IDJJ, the department’s leaders opted to work with the ACLU instead of battling it out in court. The result is the R.J. v. Jonesconsent decree. As part of the agreement, the court appointed experts who were allowed unprecedented access to evaluate the state’s youth detention centers. 

Louis Kraus, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, reported that the department failed to provide adequate mental health care because of having “too many youths with a need for mental health treatment with too few mental health professionals.” Kraus found every facility to be understaffed and the sole facility to provide 24-hour medical care for those with acute medical needs, Kewanee Youth Center, had vacancies within primary positions. While the department employs four psychologists, it does not have a child or adolescent psychologist. The department allows mental health staff with at least a master’s degree to work for two years without getting certified. Kraus found that many staff members either left after the two years were up, or got their certification during that time and moved on to other jobs. He attributed the high turnover rate to low pay. Employees in those positions typically make about $35,000 a year. 

Kraus says that staffing issues led to misdiagnosis and lack of proper treatment. He gives the example of a juvenile who he determined was psychotic. He says of the boy: “He would be in his fecal smelling room about 22 out of 24 hours a day, was not on any psychotropic medication, and no one had a clear sense of what his diagnosis was.” Staff had rated the youth at a mental health level that required minimal attention.
 

George Timberlake, who is chair of the state’s Juvenile Justice Commission, says that communities should be involved in assisting young people with mental health services before they end up in the juvenile justice system. “I know that there are communities that don’t have a robust approach, don’t have robust systems, of providing those mental health services, but that doesn’t mean the knee-jerk answer is to send those kids away.”

Peter Leone, an education professor at the University of Maryland, evaluated the educational and vocational programs within the facilities and found them to be in violation of state and federal requirements. 

Many facilities are using a computer-based program to educate youth because of the limited number of staff. The self-taught practices leave behind students who need additional assistance to understand the material. Some facilities were reported having school hours amounting to just six to eight full school days within a two-month span because of the shortage.

Leone reported that youth who were eligible for the education program were not getting additional help because of the vacancies within many facilities. The understaffing led to a “one-size-fits-all model for many students.” This finding comes as no surprise, as the Illinois State Board of Education found in 2009 that the department lacked special education personnel and failed to provide or execute accommodating learning plans for students with special needs. According to IDJJ, 42.7 percent of the children in its care are eligible for special education. 

Recreational opportunities at Pere Marquette Youth Center include a garden.
Credit Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice

  Not all youth are provided with educational and vocational programs. Those who have their GED or high school diploma, and were sent back for a parole violation, are left idle because of the lack of additional programs. Those who sit in their cells for hours or those not being properly treated for mental disorders have an increased chance of being subjected to excessive punishment or placed within solitary confinement. 

The amount of time spent by individuals in solitary confinement has been reduced at some youth centers. But according to the experts’ reports, some detainees at Kewanee and the Harrisburg youth center spend “22 to 24 hours a day within their cells” away from the general population. 

Solitary cells in the Kewanee facility were found to have “chipped paint, food and other debris on the floor.” Over the past year, Kewanee has increased use of solitary confinement. According to a report from the John Howard Association, a corrections watchdog group, between July 2012 and July 2013, 1,170 juveniles were put in solitary at Kewanee. That number is up from 680 between 2011 and 2012. One possible cause of the increase could be the transfer of offenders from the Joliet Youth Center after that facility was closed by the state to save money.

The only facility to eliminate the use of solitary confinement is Pere Marquette Youth Center. The facility developed a program to offer counseling for juveniles with behavioral issues while they remain in the general population. 

Those who work within the system and those who participated in its founding point to several potential causes for the problems at the department. Two of the biggest challenges are lack of funding and difficulty breaking away from the Department of Corrections. 

Chicago Democratic Sen. Mattie Hunter, who was a sponsor of the legislation that created the department, says it was important to get young people out of the adult system. “They started treating those troubled youth like they were criminals, so we were exacerbating problems within our prison system. We were fueling the cycle of recidivism, and we were leading those juveniles down the path to actually become criminals.” But Hunter says that because the department has been underfunded and understaffed since its inception, it has not been able to live up to the promise of treating youth differently from adults. “One of the major intents of us creating the Juvenile Justice Department was to take the kids out of the adult correctional arena and just put them in a very safe and clean environment, and I don’t believe we’ve done that from the very beginning.” 

Candice Jones, director of the Department of Juvenile Justice, acknowledges that it has not had the resources it needs. She says that several of the department’s facilities need maintenance and new roofs. Jones says that they also need indoor recreation areas so juveniles can get exercise and blow off steam even when the weather is bad. Jones told a Senate budget committee that at the current funding levels, “I can barely provide for the minimum services for the youth that are already in my care.”

The department started with a blend of corrections staff and new employees but struggled to shake old habits. Workers say they were given new rules, but often lacked the training to adapt to the culture change. “I can tell you this, the department peeled off DOC and took away some important tools that [were] there before … to help secure and control the population that were in their charge, and didn’t manage to replace them effectively or even at all for some significant period of time. What that means is that the population itself has been adrift for a long period of time,” says Eddie Caumiant, regional director of Illinois’ American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and liaison for the Department of Juvenile Justice and AFSCME, the largest public employee union in the state. 

Caumiant says typical requests he receives from staff are to “‘bring us programs. Bring us therapy. Bring us real substantive pieces that we can break a barrier with this population to achieve the mission that DJJ has set for itself.’ The big thing is...‘train us.’”

Timberlake, who is a former judge, says that lawyers and judges who deal with juveniles should receive special training, too. “If we just treat kids like little adults, the chances are the trajectory of future criminality is simply not going to be interrupted.” 

The improvement plan agreed to by the department and the ACLU requires an increase in staffing. It calls for a five-hour school day and a student-to-teacher ratio of no greater than 10-to-1. The education program would blend online and classroom learning. The remedial plan also limits when and how solitary confinement can be used. Juveniles would only be placed in solitary as a one-time solution if they impose an immediate risk 
to others and would be under mental health evaluation should the behavior continue. However, Jones warns that if the department does not get 
more funding, it may not be able to implement some parts of the agreement, including increased staffing levels.

Jones says that one of her top priorities is to focus on what happens to youth after release. Once youth return to their communities, they face new challenges and many fall short of their parole requirements. More than half of youth currently detained were released at one point, and then returned to a youth center because of a parole violation. Jennifer Vollen-Katz, director of the juvenile justice project at the John Howard Association, says that 54 percent of the youth within the department are being held for technical violations. “That’s a really big number and for that to be, I think we need to look really carefully at that to see why it is happening.”

Most juveniles end up in the parole system run by the Department of Corrections because the Juvenile Justice Department does not have its own parole system. The system, which is focused on keeping offenders in line, has had little tolerance for youthful indiscretions. Juveniles who skip school or are late for a meeting with an officer can be returned to the department for a technical violation. Youth remain on parole from the age they are released until they turn 21.

Juvenile sex offenders, who are housed in Kewanee Youth Center, have more hurdles to clear for release. These youth follow the same rules as adult sex offenders and are unable to live near public areas where kids are present.

The Prisoner Review Board determines whether youth will be paroled. When the Juvenile Justice Commission looked into the process, it found that the hearings were rushed and youth often did not understand the proceedings. Some end up staying locked up even after they are approved for release because of a lack of community placement options. 

The department offers an aftercare program, which focuses on rehabilitation and helping youth make connections to the community. But so far, it is only available through a pilot program in Cook County. Juvenile Justice reform advocates have called for taking the program statewide, and Jones says it is at the top of her to-do list. 

Although the department has been under scrutiny and is facing changes, many people within the agency — those who advocate for human rights and those who represent department staff — remain optimistic that things can improve. “We’re on the right mission, but like any entity we have to reanalyze the dream,” says Jones.

Groups like the ACLU and the John Howard Association argue that one solution would be to send fewer kids to the state’s youth centers. They call for an expansion of alternative sentencing programs, such as Redeploy Illinois, which seeks to help youth turn their lives around without incarceration. Advocates argue that unnecessarily isolating juveniles from their communities makes rehabilitation more difficult. “You can increase the number of staff or you can decrease the number of youth within these facilities, and we advocate the latter option,” says ACLU Illinois staff attorney, Lindsay Miller. “We think that is the more economic approach, and it’s going to be better for these youth in the long run.”

Illinois Issues, June 2014