The Kids Are Not Alright

The Department of Juvenile Corrections is supposed to watch -- and rehabilitate -- troubled teens. But no one's watching the department.

  Editor's note: The names of juveniles throughout these stories have been changed to protect their privacy. Although their criminal case files are public record, their corrections files are not.

The boys in the Nova cottage at Adobe Mountain School had been locked in their cells for six days. They had not been allowed to go to school or to the cafeteria or to chapel. No weekly phone calls. They had not showered, or washed their clothes. Some had been without a mattress on their metal bed frames for weeks. Leftover food and garbage sat on the floors of their cells; some boys banged on the doors, demanding to use the bathroom. A streak of dried urine ran under the door of one cell. Inside there was more urine and feces on the floor.

Terri Capozzi followed a trail of blood, seeping into the hallway, to the door of the cell belonging to a boy named Roberto. She looked through the window.


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"The room was in complete disarray," Capozzi, the youth rights ombudsman for the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, would later write in a memo obtained by New Times. "Looking down on the floor, I saw the bottom half of a pint milk container set carefully in the middle of the blood-spattered floor. It appeared that the container was filled to the brim with blood.

" . . . As I stepped into the empty room, I noticed on the floor not far from the milk carton a wad of white gauze bound together. It was blood-soaked on one end. When I looked up at the walls, I realized that the container was a bucket, the gauze a rudimentary paintbrush and that [Roberto's] blood was the paint. The walls were filled with carefully drawn ornate designs, carefully rendered. I was awestruck by what occurred in this room."

Capozzi was told the mess had been made in the past 30 minutes, but her associate, Adobe Mountain youth rights specialist Brenda Lewis, confirmed it had been there for at least several hours. Roberto, a 15-year-old serving time for burglary, had been in and out of the infirmary for days, treated for self-inflicted cuts.

The Nova boys were locked down because they'd been misbehaving, and were supposed to be participating in a marathon group-counseling session. But just one brief session had been held the previous night, they told Lewis, when she visited them early on the afternoon of Day Six.

As Capozzi and Lewis left the cottage, the boys were allowed to go to dinner in the cafeteria for the first time in almost a week. Capozzi was speaking with Roberto -- he had never cut himself before coming to Adobe, she would write, but now was "clearly mentally compromised" and suicidal -- when Joe Taylor, the school's superintendent, approached. He called her into his office and ordered her off school property, angry that she'd crossed him by speaking with kids without his permission, undermining him and his staff.

Capozzi was furious.

"I am anxiously awaiting your response to this serious personnel and management issue," Capozzi concluded in her May 19, 1999, memo to ADJC director David Gaspar and legal services director Lou Goodman.

The response: Taylor has since been promoted to ADJC assistant director, in charge of the agency's Safe Schools program.

As for Roberto, he was released from Adobe but returned in November, after he ran away from a residential treatment center. And he's still cutting himself up.

The story of Roberto and what happened in the Nova cottage may be particularly chilling, but it is not the only example of abuse of children in the custody of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections. Contrary to the agency's name, policymakers long ago gave ADJC the mandate to rehabilitate troubled kids, not punish them -- and certainly not abuse them.

And yet reports of mistreatment -- including verbal and sexual abuse, inappropriate use of restraints and solitary confinement, and violence against both juveniles and staff -- are common at the state's facilities, which typically house just under 1,000 Arizona youths at a time.

New Times has spent more than nine months investigating conditions within ADJC. Among the findings:

ADJC no longer follows the practices put into place by a federal court order in 1993 that were designed to ensure that proper conditions are maintained for youth in detention. ADJC violates the intent of the now-expired court order by:

• Routinely putting children in solitary confinement in specialized "separation units" for days or weeks, sometimes even months, without adequate education or other services.

• Locking children in their cells for days at a time, also in violation of a department policy that prohibits lock downs lasting longer than two hours at a time.

• Providing substandard mental health services. Undertrained staff counsel children, and there are waiting lists for beds in mental health cottages.

• Failing to provide enough staff. The staff-to-youth ratio should be at least one staff member for every eight youths.

In addition, ADJC violates its own internal policies and goes against acceptable national practices in the following areas:

• Staff members often use violence to control kids when it is not necessary. Sometimes staffers are disciplined, sometimes not.

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