Kid Row

Isolated, abused and lacking mental health care, do juvenile offenders leave state custody in worse shape than when they went in?

"Kids who act out and are disrespectful and hurtful, I wouldn't put in the mental health kid definition as I would the previous definition."

The experts disagree. The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors reported earlier this year that 50 percent to 75 percent of youth in public and private corrections programs have at least one diagnosable mental health disorder.

In Arizona, one mental health professional working for ADJC estimates that at least 25 percent to 35 percent of the ADJC youth have mental health problems, with up to 50 percent taking psychotropic medication.

Inadequate Staffing Leads To Abuse

Whether it's a decision to keep a kid in solitary confinement for a month or throwing a back-talking youth to the ground, the poor treatment of kids in ADJC custody boils down to poor staffing.

ADJC officials won't allow New Times to interview staff. In fact, department employees say they have been told they will be fired if they speak to the media. (ADJC spokesman Steve Meissner did not respond to a request for the department's policy.)

But such interviews aren't necessary to determine that ADJC corrections officers are often uneducated, young and inexperienced. Staff members say they also receive very little training and are frequently expected to perform duties they're wholly unsuited for, like filling in as counselors.

Staff who abuse kids are sometimes not disciplined for it. Top ADJC officials like assistant director Joe Taylor have been promoted after repeated questionable altercations with kids.

At 34 percent per year, the position of youth corrections officer has one of the highest turnover rates of any state job. And it's no wonder. At a starting salary of about $23,000, the pay is lousy.

The requirements for an entry-level youth corrections officer are few: six months experience working with youth (that could mean two summers as a lifeguard or some time teaching Sunday school), a cursory criminal background check and a GED. Adult corrections officers spend seven weeks in training as compared with youth corrections officers, who get four, yet who are expected to rehabilitate kids, not just stand guard over them.

The academy training is inadequate and sometimes irresponsible, says one staffer who doubles as an academy instructor. He's seen his colleagues teach recruits to berate kids in group sessions, to tease them about their personal lives and encourage the other kids to make fun.

But that's just part of the problem. "Many who do the recruitment testing will turn down a recruit only to find the `rejected' person sitting in the academy the next week. So the process is a sham if we hire people who our testers and interviewers thought were not appropriate."

One ADJC employee -- a counselor at Adobe Mountain with a college degree and many years experience -- says she's continually amazed by the people allowed to interact and ostensibly rehabilitate some of the state's most troubled kids.

"How to put it without being offensive? One might hire these people to work at a Circle K, but I cannot see hiring them to supervise youth at a correctional facility."

The results are obvious, the counselor says. "Kids are getting beat up, jumped, you name it and it's because staff isn't where they're supposed to be."

Many interviewed for this story suspect the incidents are underreported, because kids fear recriminations from ratting out their keepers.

One entry-level youth corrections officer at Eagle Point, the ADJC facility in Buckeye that accommodates boys from rural counties, says limited training at the ADJC academy has done nothing to prepare her for the mentally ill kids she works with every day.

She remembers an incident late one night when she and another officer were trying to control a boy who was self-abusing. They put him in the restraint chair, where he was pinned down, with an oversized helmet on, including a plastic guard over his face so he couldn't spit at staff.

"I'll bite my tongue off," the boy said, and, as the officer recalls, he almost did.

"He kept biting his tongue and I'm not trained to deal with mental health kids and it was so late at night that no one was coming out there to deal with it," she says.

Another time, she says, "A kid went to the bathroom on the floor in separation and smeared it all on the window and the door in separation and all over the wall and wrote 666 and then started licking it off the window."

This officer has a couple years' experience with adult corrections, a GED and the four weeks of training that ADJC employees receive, but she feels in no way qualified to deal with the troubled kids at Eagle Point.

"It's a joke. They're not really getting the help that they need," she says.

When she began at ADJC, she was assigned to a cottage, and asked to run group-counseling sessions. She received no preparation for this, she says, and the kids quickly got off subject.

Now she works in security, which means she responds to calls for assistance, rather than remaining in a unit. She doesn't have to run counseling sessions anymore, but she still sees mentally ill kids. It's obvious who's on the waiting list for Encanto. They act out, cut themselves, try to bite their tongues off.

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