Juvenile Offenses

A federal investigation documents serious abuses at the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections

For years, state officials from the governor down have virtually ignored allegations that children are being mistreated at Arizona's juvenile corrections facilities. Finally, the federal government is forcing Arizona to pay attention.

In a letter to Governor Janet Napolitano dated January 23 detailing a 28-month investigation, Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta outlines a disturbing amount of sexual and physical abuse of young inmates, inadequate medical and mental-health treatment and inappropriate use of solitary confinement at the three facilities investigated. The 38-page letter also details ADJC's failure to follow federal laws regarding special education.

And, with three suicides in less than a year's time, Acosta strongly criticizes ADJC for failing to provide appropriate suicide prevention training and other precautions.

"We conclude that certain serious deficiencies at these facilities violate the constitutional and federal statutory rights of the youth residents," he writes.

Specifically, the investigators found that "sexual abuse of youth by staff and other juveniles occurs with incredibly disturbing frequency" and is not adequately addressed.

And investigators find it "equally disturbing" that staffers physically abuse youth and that other staff members do not intervene during youth-on-youth assaults.

The investigation, which began in 2002 after a New Times special report revealed many of the same abuses federal authorities have now documented, was sweeping. It detailed everything from poor dental care to the fact that some boys have to urinate in plastic bottles because bathroom facilities are not always made available -- but focused in particular on suicide. That's not surprising, since one boy killed himself weeks before the investigation was launched, and two more committed suicide during the probe, which focused on Adobe Mountain and Black Canyon schools in Phoenix and Catalina in Tucson. (All three suicides took place at Adobe.)

The letter describes ADJC's suicide rate as "extremely high," noting that between 1995 and 1999, only two other juvenile corrections facilities in the country had three deaths in 12 months.

"Our investigation revealed that the Adobe suicides are emblematic of the inadequate suicide prevention measures and practices throughout the facilities," Acosta says.

The Justice Department determined that monitoring and supervision by mental-health staff is "inadequate." Investigators found that a child who threatened suicide on July 13 and 17 of 2002 was not put on suicide watch and was found with a belt around his neck on August 1, 2002.

"For example," investigators report in Acosta's letter to Napolitano, "during our on-site tour, a youth at Black Canyon attempted to choke herself with her clothing. At the time of this incident, the youth was on suicide precautions that required direct care staff to check on her every 15 minutes, but the required checks had not been made for two hours."

Further, youth locked in their cells are not adequately supervised.

"This failure is significant because of the strong correlation between involuntary locked room confinement and suicidal behavior," the investigators note. In fact, two of the three boys who committed suicide at Adobe did so when locked in their rooms.

Investigators also report a failure to refer potentially suicidal youth to mental-health professionals.

"For example," the letter says, "on September 28, 2002, upon hearing of his father's attempted suicide, a youth at Adobe informed direct care staff that he would kill himself. Later that day, the youth acted upon the threat by wrapping earphone wires around his neck. Rather than refer the youth to mental health professionals, direct care staff instructed two other youth to watch the boy to make sure he did not harm himself."

The boy did not receive counseling for at least two weeks.

None of the three facilities investigated meets ADJC's own requirement of a 3 to 48 staff-to-youth ratio. Investigators found one staff member supervising 48 juveniles, one night at Adobe. Poor supervision has resulted in youth-on-youth physical and sexual assaults, investigators report.

Investigators also found inappropriate use of disciplinary confinement. "Youth are kept in isolation for extended and inappropriate periods of time that fly in the face of generally accepted professional standards."

Girls at Black Canyon told investigators they were locked in their cells almost continuously for 10 days, with almost no opportunity to shower. Another girl who was upset over the death of her mother was in solitary confinement for three days, with virtually no explanation documented. One boy at Catalina was kept in solitary for 33 days. Four others were confined for more than 18 days.

Because of staff shortages at night, some boys at Adobe and Catalina have limited access to bathroom facilities. "Shockingly, youth reported urinating and defecating in laundry bins and plastic bottles," investigators write. "During one evening tour at Adobe, we observed youth emptying their laundry bins in the toilets and rinsing them out."

Other concerns focus on inadequate medical, nursing and dental care, as well as "dangerous medication administration practices."

Investigators report that Arizona is violating federal laws regulating special education, because ADJC does not conduct appropriate screening and identification of special-ed students.

The federal investigation was conducted by the special litigation unit of the Department of Justice, which enforces the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA). Dan Weiss, an attorney with the unit, first began making inquiries regarding Arizona's juvenile corrections system in 2001, after a New Times special report revealed poor conditions at ADJC since 1998, when a federal court order monitoring the department was lifted ("Slammed," Amy Silverman, July 5, 2001).

The court order had been put in place as the result of a 1987 class-action lawsuit, Johnson v. Upchurch, which stemmed from a case in which a boy was held in solitary confinement for several weeks. Similar situations had arisen in the ensuing four years, New Times reported. The stories included evidence of physical, sexual and verbal abuse of juvenile detainees by staff, inadequate mental-health services and instances of kids being kept in detention far longer than their recommended times of stay. A later story in the series ("Learning Disorder," December 13, 2001) detailed inadequacies in ADJC's education system.

At the time the federal investigation was announced, in June 2002, state officials continued to praise ADJC.

David Gaspar, then director of the agency, wrote in a memo to employees: "We believe that our juvenile justice system is solid and ADJC's contribution has been a strong part of Arizona's success in turning around a troubled population of young people."

George Weisz, who was then-governor Jane Hull's adviser on crime issues, told New Times, "I think they've done an outstanding job, especially in improving over the past five years."

After the initial New Times stories appeared, a group of 30 community leaders signed a letter to Hull, asking her to create an independent task force to investigate concerns about ADJC. She refused. The federal investigation was the first public inquiry into the allegations.

Gaspar resigned from ADJC last fall. Michael Branham, who is on temporary assignment from his position as executive director of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, is his interim replacement. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Napolitano's spokeswoman, Jeanine L'Ecuyer, offered a prepared statement from the governor, written by her press staff: "I've just received the report and look forward to working with the Department of Justice on the issues it contains. Nearly all of the research for this report was compiled before I took office. Since I became governor, new leadership has come to the Department of Juvenile Corrections and a lot of progress has already been made to proactively address the many deficiencies my administration inherited." However, the governor won't say what has been done to address the deficiencies.

Clearly, the governor wants to distance herself. "This was a festering problem from before she took office," L'Ecuyer says, adding that progress is being made in the search for a new director.

The governor and ADJC have 49 days to address the concerns raised in the investigative letter, which includes a long list of recommendations, including a great deal more supervision and training for staff. If, after the 49 days have passed, federal officials are not pleased with the state's response, they have the right, under the law, to file a lawsuit.

"We are still combing through the report, developing our initial response," says department spokeswoman Patty Cordova, adding that ADJC intends to invite the investigators back to view changes the department has already implemented. "There will be, I believe, an action plan developed so we follow through on some of the recommendations that were provided to us."

E-mail amy.silverman@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8443.

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