Kid Row

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"How to put it without being offensive? One might hire these people to work at a Circle K, but I cannot see hiring them to supervise youth at a correctional facility."

The results are obvious, the counselor says. "Kids are getting beat up, jumped, you name it and it's because staff isn't where they're supposed to be."

Many interviewed for this story suspect the incidents are underreported, because kids fear recriminations from ratting out their keepers.

One entry-level youth corrections officer at Eagle Point, the ADJC facility in Buckeye that accommodates boys from rural counties, says limited training at the ADJC academy has done nothing to prepare her for the mentally ill kids she works with every day.

She remembers an incident late one night when she and another officer were trying to control a boy who was self-abusing. They put him in the restraint chair, where he was pinned down, with an oversized helmet on, including a plastic guard over his face so he couldn't spit at staff.

"I'll bite my tongue off," the boy said, and, as the officer recalls, he almost did.

"He kept biting his tongue and I'm not trained to deal with mental health kids and it was so late at night that no one was coming out there to deal with it," she says.

Another time, she says, "A kid went to the bathroom on the floor in separation and smeared it all on the window and the door in separation and all over the wall and wrote 666 and then started licking it off the window."

This officer has a couple years' experience with adult corrections, a GED and the four weeks of training that ADJC employees receive, but she feels in no way qualified to deal with the troubled kids at Eagle Point.

"It's a joke. They're not really getting the help that they need," she says.

When she began at ADJC, she was assigned to a cottage, and asked to run group-counseling sessions. She received no preparation for this, she says, and the kids quickly got off subject.

Now she works in security, which means she responds to calls for assistance, rather than remaining in a unit. She doesn't have to run counseling sessions anymore, but she still sees mentally ill kids. It's obvious who's on the waiting list for Encanto. They act out, cut themselves, try to bite their tongues off.

It's not fair to the kids or the staff, she says, to put them in this situation.

"The people who work there thought they were going to be a correctional officer and not a therapist."

But the problems with ADJC staff are much more serious than simply not being able to get kids to listen during a counseling session. Kids are physically, verbally and sexually abused. Teachers are getting hurt.

The entry-level corrections officers often aren't much older than the kids, the critics say, and not much more mature. They sneak R-rated movies into the facilities to placate the kids, take smoking breaks when they're supposed to be watching the juveniles and put themselves and others in danger by horsing around with kids they are supposed to be supervising.

Last August, according to an incident report obtained from ADJC, a teacher at Adobe Mountain handed out papers to her class, and one kid crumpled his up. She told him he wouldn't get another and he responded by calling her a "bum fucking bitch." She told him to leave the classroom, and turned her back. The boy hit her in the head with a tube sock containing a bar of soap and a two-inch rock.

The teacher was taken to the hospital, where she received 13 staples in her head for two lacerations, including one that was two inches long.

Such an incident could have been prevented if the teacher had not been left alone in her room without a corrections officer present, say other teachers who commented for this story. The federal court order does not specifically dictate that teachers be accompanied by an officer, but ADJC policy does.

And just last month, John, a boy serving time for 57 counts of child molestation, admitted to staff that he'd been accessing pornography on a computer in Adobe Mountain's maintenance office -- something that likely could have been prevented if the youth-staff ratio were followed, and staff were adequately trained, as dictated by the court.

Department records show ADJC's internal affairs department investigates several dozen cases each year; hundreds more complaints never make it through the grievance process designed to allow kids to air their own concerns.

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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.