The Kids Are Still Not Alright

A girl at Black Canyon School shares her experiences with visitors.
Dan Huff

Editor's note: The names of juveniles have been changed to protect their privacy.

Last January, Gail Edwards got a message on her answering machine from a nurse at Adobe Mountain School, the state juvenile detention facility in north Phoenix where her son Scott was then living.

"Your son was in a fight, but he's okay," the nurse told Edwards. A week later, Scott called his mother to tell her he'd been taken to a hospital emergency room by ambulance.

Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections staff told Edwards that Scott tipped over a bookcase, giving himself a superficial wound to the back of the head. But the hospital records Edwards later requested better match Scott's version of events: that an ADJC staff member punched him in the eye, and slammed his head into a concrete wall.

Scott is seriously mentally ill, Edwards says. He has been in and out of ADJC facilities since 1998, when he stole a car from his foster family and crashed it. He could no longer live at home, his mother says, because he was violent toward family members as a result of abuse he suffered as a child.

But Gail Edwards worries Scott is getting worse, not better, under ADJC's care. While in state custody, he set his cell on fire. Edwards wonders how he got ahold of the materials to do so. She says he's been propositioned by an ADJC staff member, and wonders how that was allowed to happen as well. She worries that as his 18th birthday -- and instant freedom -- approaches, Scott has no life skills. And she says his mental illness is going untreated.

"My son's going to get out and the best thing the juvenile corrections system has prepared him for is the adult corrections system," Edwards says.

She should know. Not only is she a parent, Gail Edwards is the owner/director of the Edwards Hall Charter School in Cottonwood, a school designed specifically for troubled teenagers. Many of her students are in and out of ADJC. She knows mistakes can happen, Edwards says, but ADJC should discipline its staff if necessary.

Unlike many parents of kids in state custody, Edwards keeps tabs on her son -- as best she can -- and is demanding answers to her questions about his care. She wrote to Governor Jane Dee Hull in October, informing her of the alleged assault on Scott and ADJC's subsequent shoddy response. She got a letter back more than a month later from George Weisz, Hull's deputy chief of staff, telling her he'd look into it and asking for more information.

"It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to go and pull those medical records and say, 'Something wasn't right,'" Edwards says, adding that she's totally frustrated.

She's not the only one. In July, more than 30 community leaders wrote to Hull, requesting that she create a task force to look into ADJC, after a New Times special report revealed deteriorating conditions within ADJC facilities, including kids who are routinely held in solitary confinement for days, sometimes even months, staff members who use violence to control kids, and an education system that likely violates state and federal law.

The "Slammed" series ("The Kids Are NOT Alright," "Kid Row" and "Welcome to the Hotel Arizona," July 5, and "Learning Disorder," December 13) relied on thousands of documents and numerous interviews with current and former staff, as well as kids who had been in custody and their parents, to detail how Arizona's youth corrections system has declined since 1998, when a federal court order requiring that the department be monitored expired.

The court order came as a result of a 1987 class-action lawsuit, Johnson v. Upchurch, that stemmed from a case in which a boy was held in solitary confinement for several weeks. Similar situations have arisen in the past 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 where kids were kept in detention far longer than their recommended time of stay.

The community leaders' letter to Hull asked for a review of "conditions of confinement, length of stay determination and aftercare services throughout ADJC." It requested that the majority of task force members come from outside ADJC.

Almost six months later, Jan Christian, the former executive director of the Governor's Select Commission and Task Force on Juvenile Corrections, who headed the letter-writing group, has heard nothing from Hull.

Russell Van Vleet, a Utah-based juvenile corrections consultant with 30 years in the business -- including several as one of the monitors of the 1993 federal court order imposed on ADJC facilities -- also signed the letter. He also has heard nothing from Hull.  

Van Vleet says he did hear from the U.S. Department of Justice, which has a special division devoted to investigating civil rights violations at juvenile corrections facilities. He was asked to put together a package of material about Arizona, which he did; he hasn't heard back. Others in the juvenile justice community say they've heard from the Justice Department, too, although the federal agency refuses to confirm or deny an investigation.

At this point, Van Vleet says, it's too late for the governor to oversee any scrutiny of ADJC. Bring on the feds, he says.

"I think they need an outside agency to come in once again and review procedure. . . . That would be my advice to the governor."

It looks like she might take that advice. Hull will not create a task force to look into conditions at ADJC, says Weisz, who acknowledges he never bothered to write back to the community leaders. (Weisz says ADJC Director Dave Gaspar is meeting with each of the letter signers individually, although he can name just one, Alice Snell, who's actually had a face-to-face with Gaspar to date.) But Weisz says the court monitors -- including Van Vleet -- are invited to return to ADJC to review conditions.

"We are open to having the court monitors . . . review again that we are in compliance with the original [federal court order]. In fact, not only have we remained in compliance, we have exceeded the requirements," Weisz says.

A healthy agency should invite such a review, Van Vleet says. He's critical of ADJC for trying to hide problems within the facilities. "That's what I think is the most frightening thing going on in Arizona."

ADJC officials have complained about what they think is unfair treatment in the New Times series. Steve Meissner, spokesman for the agency, says he thinks the paper has a "proclivity for ignoring what we tell you if it doesn't fit your preconceived notions."

In fact, the New Times stories are banned from ADJC facilities, according to staff. Gail Edwards says an ADJC staffer told her son to tell his mother to read the stories, because they reported abuse similar to what Scott has endured.

The agency did not respond to recent questions about any action taken to follow up on concerns raised in the articles.

Weisz would not discuss specifics, but says the concerns raised in the stories have all been addressed to his satisfaction.

"I feel that Dave Gaspar and his staff have followed up on those issues in an appropriate manner and continue to do so whenever a problem arises. The department is not perfect, but it strives to do the best job possible and to resolve any problems as they come along."

According to documents obtained by New Times, abuse has continued in recent months:

• ADJC continues to keep kids in solitary confinement for days at a time.

As of October 22, four youths had been in solitary confinement for more than a day, and three more for almost a day. One had been in for 278 hours -- more than 11 days. There are additional reports of boys held in solitary at Eagle Point School in Buckeye for two weeks or more.

• Boys at one ADJC facility report they have to urinate in bags because staff won't let them out to use the bathroom.

In a memo dated October 10, quality assurance specialist Margaret Leon detailed an interview she held with a boy from the January cottage at Adobe Mountain School who reported that he was locked in his cell almost constantly because he refused to cooperate with staff. He told Leon that he sleeps all day and bangs on the door to get out to go to the bathroom, but that they often don't come, so he urinates in a plastic bag. "He said most of the kids do because the staff don't let them out. He said when they get out of the rooms then they flush the bags down the toilet. He said they do this all the time."

• A boy has been repeatedly denied entry to ADJC's sex-offender unit, even though he's had altercations -- and allegedly a sexual relationship with another youth -- at other ADJC facilities, according to an internal ADJC memo.

• An officer used pepper spray on a boy for refusing to move from a couch.

Several officers tried to convince the boy to go to his cell, but he kept refusing and threatened to hurt anyone who came near him. After threatening him with the pepper spray several times, an officer sprayed the boy twice. The boy then attacked the officer, according to the department's incident report.  

• A corrections officer threw a girl to the ground and held his arm against her neck -- she was bruised and cut -- because she refused to go to her cell when asked.

According to an ADJC staff interview with the girl, three corrections officers responded to a call for assistance. An officer grabbed Beth's arm; she pulled back and said, "Get off of me."

"She had lotion in her hand and said, 'Let me put this on my foot real quick.'"

The officer said, "Wrong answer," and swung her off the table. He told her to go to her room; Beth told him to get out of her face. Finally, he got her up against the wall, then threw her to the ground on her stomach and, according to Beth, said, "Oh, Big Bad Beth, whatcha gonna do now, what else do you have to say?"

Beth responded: "I can't breathe," and spit up blood. When she told him she was "fucking calm," she was taken to separation, or solitary confinement.

"It concerns me that staff needed security to intervene due to a youth taking an extra shower and then refusing to give back a bottle of lotion. Surely, the department has taught its staff proper therapeutic interventions on how to manage troubled youth, or how to use pro-social ways of handling situations so that a power struggle does not occur," an ADJC staff member complained to superiors after the incident with the girl.

"It concerns me more that security was not able to find another way of dealing with this youth other than using physical force to intervene. . . . When are we going to learn our lesson? Will it be when a youth is severely injured? When we are sued? Or when we are in a situation involving another [federal court order]?"

Steve Meissner, the agency spokesman, says state law prohibits the agency from discussing specific cases, even if juveniles' names are not published.

He says the average length of stay for a youth in "separation" is 36 hours. He says department policy allows kids to use the bathroom, but he won't address his own staff member's detailed report on kids being forced to urinate in plastic bags.

As far as pepper spray is concerned, Meissner says, "In each instance where staff have determined that force may be necessary, security staff are trained to use the least amount of force required to control the situation. The fact that there has been only one incident where pepper spray was used, though a policy has been in place for several years, should make it self-evident that staff use this option with the utmost care."

Meissner did not mention that the department's pepper spray policy was suspended after the recent incident and that ADJC's lawyer, Lou Goodman, requested an investigation into the boy on the couch.

Russ Van Vleet says he sees no reason why ADJC can't answer questions about individual cases.

"I think that's the decision they've made to try to keep people from looking at what they're doing," he says. "You have to allow the light to come in and it needs to come in from outside the system. It's ridiculous to refuse to discuss individual cases."

Van Vleet says he can't think of another juvenile corrections institution in the country that allows the use of pepper spray. And no "well-run facility," he says, would allow children to urinate in bags.

"It's just part of that degrading, inhumane thing that makes this notion of rehabilitation such a farce," he says.

And as for the kid in 278-plus hours of solitary confinement, "It really amazes me, frankly, that that's occurring, because that's what started the Johnson v. Upchurch lawsuit."

This week, the Arizona Legislature will finish tinkering with the 2002 budget. Like all state agencies, ADJC is sure to take a hit -- quite likely on the ground level, with cuts in youth corrections officer positions, even though many critics say poor staffing has led to many of the department's problems.

Several state legislators, including Republican Tom Smith, vice chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, have told New Times they're certain nothing's wrong at ADJC. Smith knows that, he says, because he's toured Adobe Mountain School.

Dennis Pickering, who heads the Arizona Juvenile Justice Commission, says his group -- which, he adds, has no real authority to change conditions at ADJC -- will tour Adobe Mountain early next year. With 20 years of experience in juvenile justice issues, Pickering says, he's certain he'll be able to tell whether anything's amiss at ADJC, after a three-hour tour with Director Gaspar.  

Russell Van Vleet groans. "Gaspar could walk me through Adobe Mountain and make me think everything is wonderful. And I've been doing this for 30 years."

More stories in the Slammed Series

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