Kid Row

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Mark suffered a broken ear drum and permanent hearing loss, a broken nose and possible brain damage.

"In the years that I have been here, I have never seen such a brutal attack on another youth like this one," a corrections officer wrote in a report on the incident, noting that it took 45 minutes to clean up the blood.

Even state officials who keep an eye on the agency's liability are concerned about the way ADJC treats kids with mental health issues. Assistant attorney general Cynthia Choate recently wrote to Phil Lopez, ADJC counsel, requesting information in a case involving Ralph, a boy who was assaulted after he was sent to the Sunrise Mountain facility in Buckeye, instead of the mental health unit at Encanto.

Choate writes, ". . . it does not appear this case will settle for a nominal amount. . . . [If the young man who assaulted Ralph] has a `colorful' history, this may be problematic and further evidence that we should settle the case. . . ."

Gaspar says he could use more mental health beds. But he downplays the need for them. He insists that most of the kids in his custody are not mentally ill, simply delinquents.

A "mental health kid," he says, is "a kid who cannot sort out what day it is or how he faces or she faces today's life and she needs psychotropic drugs, for example, to sort of help create some balance. Those are kids who I think are mental health kids. That's my training.

"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.

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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.