Longform

Kid Row

Page 7 of 9

Jim asked staff to photograph his injuries, but they refused, according to his father, who drove up from Tucson the next day to see Jim's black eye, scratches and bruises.

Jim has been in ADJC custody since February. His dad says his record includes possession of marijuana, car theft (Ybarra's car) and multiple counts of probation violation. He ran from authorities when they tried to pick him up for the latest probation violation, which landed him at ADJC.

"My boy's in there for a reason. He's not an angel. But those officers don't have a right to abuse him," Ybarra says.

The federal court order signed in 1993 does not specifically address such abuse. That, Jan Christian explains, is because the state would not have dared to defend it. The order did require ADJC to adequately train staff and maintain a 1-to-8 staff-to-kid ratio during daytime hours. But staff say that numbers are padded -- secretaries and maintenance crew are included in the department's tally to bolster the ratio -- and that in fact, it's common for a cottage of 24 or more kids to have two staff members on hand at a time.

"People just have to know from the top down that as much as we get frustrated with these kids, hitting them, having sex with them, abusing them" cannot be tolerated, says Superior Court Judge Maurice Portley, who until last month had been chief juvenile court presiding judge since 1998.

"The issue is, would we tolerate this in a school? Would we tolerate it from someone in child protective custody? Would we tolerate it from a parent?"


And while the troubles begin at the bottom, with entry-level corrections officers, they extend all the way up to the highest levels of ADJC.

In 1999, a corrections officer reported that then-Adobe Mountain superintendent Joe Taylor ordered restraints put on a boy who was not at all violent, but instead was sitting in a chair, crying -- a direct violation of the federal court order.

According to a memo written by youth rights ombudsman Terri Capozzi, "The [incident report] itself notes that Mr. Taylor instructed staff to place mechanical restraints on the youth before the youth became physically aggressive. In fact, it appears that the youth did not actually become aggressive until orders were issued to restrain him. If the youth is to be believed, he feared being restrained and forced to return to a cottage where he felt unsafe." (The boy had been arguing with other kids in his unit.)



A year earlier, Joe Taylor had had another run-in with an Adobe youth, according to a confidential memo from Marian Webber, assistant director for secure care, to David Gaspar, then ADJC interim director.

According to the memo, the youth, Virgil, alleged the following:

"Superintendent Taylor came to his room and told his roommates to leave. He then began to question [Virgil] about tagging the walls. [Virgil] said that during the conversation Superintendent Taylor poked him in the chest, then slapped him on the forehead causing his head to hit the wall."

Taylor acknowledged coming in to speak to Virgil and asking his roommates to leave. He says he did at one point have his hand on Virgil's wrist, without pressure, but otherwise did not touch him. The health unit did not find bruising or other evidence of harm to Virgil.



But Frederico, a boy across the hall from Virgil, related the following: "A black officer was in [Virgil's] room. The black officer was observed hitting [Virgil] in the head while asking him why he filed a grievance. The black officer picked up [Virgil] by his shirt and threw him across the room."

Frederico subsequently gave ADJC a conflicting statement, Webber writes, and was later deported to Mexico. The grievance was considered resolved, although Virgil and Taylor never agreed.

Taylor has since been promoted to ADJC Assistant Director for Safe Schools -- just below the agency director -- and is rumored to be in line for the director's chair if David Gaspar were to leave.

As for Gaspar, he uses all the right buzz words, his critics report. But the director's utopian vision of ADJC as a national rehabilitative juvenile corrections model blurs when you see it in operation.

"My experience with Gaspar is that . . . what he talks about is all about doing the right thing by kids. And I think that he would truly like to believe that that is what they're doing day by day," says one ADJC employee, a highly educated supervisor with more than 12 years in the juvenile corrections business and three years with the department.

But the reality is that's not true, the employee says. He used to think that Gaspar just didn't know what was going on in his agency; he's since changed his mind.

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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.