Kid Row

Page 3 of 9

And it's not uncommon for an entire cottage to be locked down. In 1999, the Nova cottage at Adobe Mountain School was locked down for six days. Earlier this year, according to department records, a boy at Adobe Mountain was placed in exclusion for an entire weekend.

Russ Van Vleet, a Utah-based juvenile corrections consultant, has spent 30 years in the business -- including several as one of the monitors of the 1993 federal court order imposed on ADJC facilities.

The need to put kids in isolation is an indication that an institution is poorly managed, he says.

"I'm a little surprised that Arizona would be in a position . . . to justify that procedure. I don't think that's normal and I don't think it's practiced in other places," Van Vleet says.

In the Utah facility reserved for the worst juvenile offenders, the isolation room is used so infrequently it's been turned into a storage facility, he says. In South Carolina, juvenile corrections administrators removed the doors from all of the kids' cells.

"They think the worst thing they can do is lock kids in their rooms," says Van Fleet.

Mental Illness Underestimated, Underfunded

Rebecca was lucky. A youth rights advocate got her out of separation after only 18 days. Three weeks later she turned 18, and was released to the streets -- likely with a 30-day supply of meds and the phone number for Value Options, the state-subsidized mental health agency.

Director Gaspar speaks proudly of how he's added highly trained mental health professionals to his payroll, increased counseling sessions and created new substance abuse programs.

But staff interviewed for this story report a different situation, one which often ignores or even exacerbates mental illness among ADJC's troubled population.

The staff say unqualified corrections officers are leading group sessions and that staff psychiatrists spend more time on administrative chores than with sick kids.

Complicating matters is the fact that kids who started treatment with federal assistance from Medicaid before they got into trouble are dropped from those programs because the feds won't pay for their treatment while they are institutionalized. ADJC staff say it can take weeks or months to get a kid back on the right meds and course of psychiatric treatment once he or she is committed to ADJC.

And likewise, when juveniles like Rebecca are dumped from ADJC custody at 18, they are given little information about how to get Medicaid assistance, let alone how to cope with the outside world.

ADJC does maintain specialty mental health cottages. With 25 beds and a much smaller female population agency-wise, Maya, the girls' cottage at Black Canyon, is seldom filled to capacity.

But there is a perpetual waiting list for Encanto -- the only mental health cottage in the state for boys, with just 34 beds for a pool of more than 750 who need them. Critics say the lack of beds alone is proof that adequate services are not being provided.

Roberto, the boy who cut himself and painted the walls with his own blood (see The Kids Are Not Alright), was recommitted recently to ADJC. He was initially assigned to a cottage in the general population -- even though he was still cutting himself.

His attorney, Barbara Cerepayna, fought to get Roberto a spot in Encanto and she believes he would not have been placed there without a strong advocate, something most kids don't have. Beyond that, she says, "His mental health problems have escalated to such a point that I truly don't know what I'm going to advocate for yet."

Angry parents have filed claims with the state, seeking damages for harm done to kids referred to Encanto but placed in the general population.

Take Mark, for example. He was committed to ADJC and placed at Catalina Mountain School, even though the judge recommended he be sent to the Encanto cottage at Adobe Mountain because of his long history of mental illness. Not only does Encanto offer more extensive mental health services and increased supervision, it also houses boys in single rooms.

Mark was assaulted twice at Catalina, according to a letter his attorney recently sent to the state, in which she demanded $1 million in compensation.

Already fearful for his safety, Mark had been waiting for a corrections officer to escort him to his cell after his cottage watched a video in their day room. John, a boy with a violent history, approached Mark and asked him if he always sat by the officer because he was afraid. Mark told John to shut up, and John attacked him. A staff member had to hit John on the back with a chair to get him off of Mark.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.