Kid Row

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"I think he has to be aware, I just think he doesn't know how to deal with it."

David Gaspar won't talk specifics about his agency, but he loves to describe his philosophy:

"To create in an organization a belief about that, that tomorrow ought to be better than today, today ought to be better than yesterday, is fundamental to a healthy organization. A lot of corrections institutions don't have those kinds of conversations. And I think this is about people caring about people. I think this is real. For these kids and these families, maybe their only hope is us," he says, sitting back at a conference table in his downtown Phoenix office.

George Weisz, Governor Jane Dee Hull's crime policy advisor, agrees.

"Dave Gaspar and his staff have really increased their professionalism and have turned the department around from what it was years ago. I don't think he and staff anymore see juvenile corrections as a warehouse for kids, but I believe they really have a vision to ensure that these kids get treatment, so they can be productive members of our society," he says.

Weisz and Gaspar both point to a 94-point performance-based standards plan ADJC uses to measure its performance and compare itself with other agencies nationwide. But they don't share any results of the plan and critics say the trouble with the standards plan is that it allows ADJC to judge itself, rather than submit to outside examination.

That outside examination is what's been missing since 1998.

While ADJC officials insist they follow the points of the order to this day, that's clearly not happening. And there's no way to force them to do so. The order was dismissed by the court with prejudice, meaning the case cannot be reopened.

One alternative: Find a case where a kid like Matthew Davey Johnson, the original plaintiff in the 1987 lawsuit, is being abused, and file a new lawsuit in federal court. Of course, even if successful, that would take years.

And Russ Van Vleet, the court monitor in the original Arizona lawsuit, warns that since that first case, the laws have been changed to make it much tougher to win such a case.

"We're actually in a worse position today than we've been in my entire career to move into institutions and do anything," he says.

Inside the state, options for increasing scrutiny are limited.

Unless kids have attentive parents or a private attorney, they're pretty much on their own once inside ADJC. There are no outside watchdog groups monitoring activities in the institution, and no federal oversight at the moment.

Most juvenile offenders have been represented by public defenders, who no longer have an affiliation with the child. Similarly, although county judges send kids to ADJC, they have no oversight once a juvenile is in the state's custody. That bothers Judge Portley, who observes that when, as a juvenile court judge, he sent a kid to residential treatment, he could order a hearing or report on the status of the case every 60 to 90 days. Not so with ADJC, except in very rare circumstances.

"There were some cases where I would have loved to have gotten a report in six to nine months, just to see how a kid was doing" at ADJC, he says.

One way to increase scrutiny would be to take the ADJC youth rights department outside of the agency, Portley says.

"It's a shame that they are internal. They really should have the freedom through the Department of Administration or [the state ombudsman's office] . . . to be youth advocates."

Weisz says he recently spoke to ADJC officials, and doesn't believe there are any problems; he notes that corrections officers recently received a raise.

But he vows that the governor's office will look into the information New Times has uncovered, and respond accordingly.

"While I think overall we're doing a good job to address the entire situation of juvenile justice and preserving the public safety and trying to address the treatment needs of our kids, if there are problems . . . one failure is one too many and we want to do everything we can," Weisz says.

"But I think people have to realize that we are getting these kids after society has failed them in every other way. Some of them are the worst of the worst."

That is not enough for some concerned ADJC employees, like the three-year supervisor watching the agency slide farther away from rehabilitation every day.

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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.