Despite widely-heralded reforms of Washington, D.C.’s juvenile justice system, youth advocates recently decried the increase in District youths being locked up for low-level offenses, and alleged the youths were being subjected to substandard medical care and increased instances of isolation in the District’s overcrowded, understaffed secure facilities.

At the same time, a District councilmember said too many youth under DYRS supervision are on the lam, raising concerns about the safety of the general public and the young people themselves.

“I believe that no youth should be on abscondence for more than 72 hours,” said D.C. council member Tommy Wells, who conducted a hearing last week as chairman of the council’s Committee on Human Services, which has oversight of DYRS. As of Sept. 13, a total of 73 youths were “on abscondence” from DYRS, Wells said.

The lawmaker also announced plans to investigate the circumstances surrounding the deaths of three District youths that were killed in separate incidents within the past three months despite being under DYRS supervision.

While Wells focused largely on youths on the run, youth advocates at the District council hearing on DYRS focused largely on the youths being held at New Beginnings Youth Development Center – the District’s new 60-bed, secure facility for youths committed to DYRS custody. As of Sept. 13, the facility held 11 more youths than it was designed to hold.

Advocates complained that many of the youths are being held at New Beginnings only because they are awaiting placement in a less-restrictive, community-based setting.

“We are concerned that awaiting placement, youth, on the whole, may not be receiving appropriate housing or adequate services at New Beginnings,” said attorney Alan Pemberton, lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the 25-year-old {Jerry M.} lawsuit that alleged the District had failed to provide appropriate care, rehabilitation and treatment for confined youths.

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed in 1985, the District entered into a consent decree and has since been under monitoring by a special arbiter.

Priscilla Skillman, assistant director of the Council for Court Excellence, stated judicial commitments of delinquent youth to DYRS have “increased dramatically over the past six years, from 141 in fiscal 2004 to 358 in fiscal 2009.

That increase was partially explained through the testimony of Tracy Velazquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a District-based organization that advocates alternatives to incarceration. “We have a lot of kids who are being brought into the system for low level offenses,” she said.

Other advocates lamented a pending plan to cut DYRS physicians from three to one, effective Oct. 23, putting one doctor in charge of medical care at both New Beginnings, which is based in Laurel, Md., and DYRS’s Youth Services Center (YSC), the District’s 88-bed detention center in Northeast D.C..

“DYRS clearly has a distorted and dysfunctional idea on how to save money,” said Vanessa Dixon, of the DC Health Care Coalition. Dixon testified that there have been instances where youths at DYRS facilities have suffered injuries that have gone untreated for days, have been overmedicated or not received the proper medication because of the decisions made by non-physicians.

Liz Ryan, president and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, said there has been a five-fold increase in the use of isolation or “lockdown” at DYRS facilities.

“This is particularly worrisome, because I understand that over the last several years, there has been substantial progress in reducing the use of isolation,” Ryan said.

Robert Hildum, a former District juvenile prosecutor who now serves as interim director of DYRS, acknowledged an increase in the use of isolation but said it’s not as bad as people think.

“It’s not a stone floor where kids are thrown in with no blanket,” Hildum said of one such room at YSC.

Hildum also largely disputed allegations that youths were not receiving proper care during the hearing, which was meant to give an update on the status of DYRS nearly two months into his tenure as interim director.

“The youth have never been confined more safely with better medical care, better nutrition across the board,” he said, adding that he planned to search for ways to ease overcrowding, increase use of electronic monitoring and hire more staff.

Hildum said the decision to reduce DYRS physicians was based on the opinion of a national “expert” on institutional care who said one doctor was enough.

Asked by Wells whether he was interested in serving as DYRS director on a permanent basis, Hildum initially said he was “excited about the prospect of helping to finish the reform” being sought through the {Jerry M}. lawsuit.

“I guess I am saying, ‘Yes, I would like to be considered,’” Hildum said.

Jamaal Abdul-Alim covers crime and justice for the AFRO and can be reached at dcwriter360@yahoo.com.

 

Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Special to the AFRO