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Teenage Wasteland

It's not as easy as it used to be to kill yourself while in the custody of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections. Some kids still try. In April 2005, a boy incarcerated at Eagle Point School in Buckeye made a serious suicide attempt — serious enough to warrant a...
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It's not as easy as it used to be to kill yourself while in the custody of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections. Some kids still try.

In April 2005, a boy incarcerated at Eagle Point School in Buckeye made a serious suicide attempt — serious enough to warrant a trip to the hospital, serious enough that word spread among the other four ADJC facilities in the state.

This boy had recently arrived at Eagle Point. Like many of the other kids detained by ADJC, he's not a violent criminal; he was in for petty crimes.

During recreation time one day, the boy walked across the football field, took off his yellow tee shirt, tied one end around the goal post and the other around his neck and almost successfully hanged himself.

Staff and kids rushed to get him down, says Michael Branham, the agency's director, who confirmed the suicide attempt.

This, despite the agency's best efforts to prevent suicides — or even attempts. In the past two years, ADJC has been retrofitting vents, door hinges and bunk beds in cells to make them suicide-proof.

The incident at Eagle Point makes it clear — you can't suicide-proof a kid, not even with fancy vents and bunk beds fused to the cinder block wall of the cell.

Branham says he does not know how many times in the past two years kids have been taken to the hospital following suicide attempts. Getting that data would take a long time, he says, because all self-destructive behavior — from punching the wall with a closed fist, on up — is classified by ADJC as suicidal behavior.

It's disturbing that Branham and his staff can't — or won't — say offhand how many times a suicide attempt has meant a hospital visit. Suicide has been a constant topic for the department since three boys — Christopher Camacho, David Horvath and Roy Roman Jr. — successfully hanged themselves at Adobe Mountain School, between 2002 and 2003. All three cases have been settled with the state. Sources report that the total cost to the state to pay off the three families was under $1.5 million.

But ADJC has paid in other ways as well. At the time the boys committed suicide, the U.S. Department of Justice was already looking at ADJC, following a series of articles published in Phoenix New Times, beginning in the summer of 2001, which reported on deplorable conditions at the agency's institutions.

The formal federal investigation began in June 2002, shortly after Camacho's death.

At the time, Jane Dee Hull was governor. She had refused, in July 2001, to create a task force to examine conditions at the agency, even though the request came in a letter signed by 30 community leaders. When the feds announced their investigation, George Weisz, then Hull's adviser on crime issues (today he works for the mayor of Phoenix), told New Times, "I think they've done an outstanding job, especially in improving over the past five years."

Hull said nothing.

At the time, Janet Napolitano was attorney general. She didn't say anything, either.

Rick Romley, the former Maricopa County attorney who at one point early on in the 2006 political season considered challenging Napolitano for the governor's seat, says he's never understood why the then-attorney general didn't launch a civil rights investigation after abuses were first revealed in New Times.

"Why is it the feds had to do it when we in our own state have an obligation," Romley asks, "to look out for the welfare of our own children, to be sure things are being done appropriately?"

Napolitano's deputy chief of staff, Mikel Haener, says in an e-mail that an investigation was outside of the AG's scope. The governor continues to say nothing. Her staff said she was too busy to be interviewed for this story.

The federal investigation concluded in 2004, with a host of recommendations for reform and three years to implement them, under federal monitors. The compliance agreement should be satisfied by September 2007.

"While there is still work to be done, we have made tremendous progress," Haener says.

He's right. By all accounts, the reform effort is going well. The federal monitors visit ADJC facilities regularly, and write long reports about whether the state is in compliance.

There have been some snags. For example, kids are still locked alone and unsupervised in their cells as punishment, or kept in solitary confinement too long. That should change soon, agency staffers say.

Then the feds will be gone. And Arizona's system will be reformed, but reformed with a lower-case "r." Real "Reform" could next come in a bold decision by the governor to follow the lead of many states around the country and convert Arizona's big juvenile corrections facilities to a rehabilitative system incorporating community support.

No doubt, Napolitano could have taken the lead and dismantled Arizona's juvenile corrections system as soon as she took office. At least, she could have promised real reform down the line. Instead, she has ensured the minimum — that the feds be allowed to implement their corrective actions. Next year, she'll likely be asked to do more in terms of Reform.

Haener does not rule that out. He says that will be discussed once the federal investigation is complete. He even allows that there is talk about possibly selling Adobe Mountain, Black Canyon and Catalina (in Tucson), all of which sit on very valuable land, and using the money to build smaller facilities.

Before talk of real reform, Napolitano faces another decision. The task force monitoring the federal reforms, led by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Emmet Ronan, plans to strongly recommend that a permanent oversight committee be created by law, to ensure that ADJC does not backslide once the feds leave. Director Branham disagrees; he wants the power to appoint his own advisory committee, which would serve at his whim.

Haener says a decision has not been made.

"I don't think that absent some type of oversight that the system will continue in the direction that it's going," says Russ Van Vleet, one of the federal monitors. Based in Utah, he's considered one of the leading experts on juvenile justice in the country.

When it comes to Arizona, Van Vleet knows what he's talking about. This is not his first time here. In the mid-1990s, he served as the monitor in the state's first reform effort. Less than a decade later, the feds are back again.

Now it's up to Governor Napolitano, Van Vleet says, to make sure history does not repeat itself.

"When there's been successful reform [in other states], the governor has been a participant," he says. "I think she has to take an active role for it to happen. I don't know if that's on her agenda."

And now, a brief history lesson about Arizona's juvenile justice system.

Many juvenile delinquents never get past the county juvie hall stage, a few hours' detention, waiting for mom and dad to play fetch. But the judge has another choice, for repeat offenders: the state juvenile corrections system.

For decades, Arizona's juvenile institutions were administered under the auspices of the state Department of Corrections.

But in 1987, a boy named Matthew David Johnson was held in solitary confinement for more than a day at Catalina Mountain School in Tucson. Johnson, who was 17, was no hardened criminal. He was serving a year's sentence for jumping a ride on a train. His attorney argued that Johnson's civil rights were violated when he was isolated in poor conditions, and sued James Upchurch, then Catalina's superintendent.

As a result, the U.S. Department of Justice intervened, investigated and subjected the state's entire juvenile corrections system to reform. The juveniles were taken out of the adult system, and a new state agency, the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, was formed. Court monitors were hired, and a task force was created to implement change.

Reforms took many years. Conditions greatly improved, although the facilities were still based on a model of incarceration, rather than rehabilitation.

In 1998, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Bilby died, and the consent decree he had overseen was allowed to dissolve. The task force completed its work, and, without any continuing oversight committee, walked away. No permanent oversight was created.

A little more than two years later, New Times launched a nine-month investigation into conditions at the juvenile facilities, after receiving tips that the situation had deteriorated.

Indeed, it had. Solitary confinement was used more than ever, and kids were routinely locked in their cells as punishment; staffers were abusing kids, and kids were abusing staffers; educational and mental health services were subpar; and staffers said they were worried it was only a matter of time before someone died. At the same time, because of broader criminal justice system reforms, the most serious juvenile offenders were now being sent straight into the adult system. ADJC was filled, for the most part, with mentally ill kids who should not have been incarcerated in the first place.

The New Times story began like this:

The boys in the Nova cottage at Adobe Mountain School had been locked in their cells for six days. They had not been allowed to go to school or to the cafeteria or to chapel. No weekly phone calls. They had not showered, or washed their clothes. Some had been without a mattress on their metal bed frames for weeks. Leftover food and garbage sat on the floors of their cells; some boys banged on the doors, demanding to use the bathroom. A streak of dried urine ran under the door of one cell. Inside there was more urine and feces on the floor.

Terri Capozzi followed a trail of blood, seeping into the hallway, to the door of the cell belonging to a boy named Roberto. She looked through the window.

"The room was in complete disarray," Capozzi, the youth rights ombudsman for the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, would later write in a memo obtained by New Times. "Looking down on the floor, I saw the bottom half of a pint milk container set carefully in the middle of the blood-spattered floor. It appeared that the container was filled to the brim with blood.

"As I stepped into the empty room, I noticed on the floor not far from the milk carton a wad of white gauze bound together. It was blood-soaked on one end. When I looked up at the walls, I realized that the container was a bucket, the gauze a rudimentary paintbrush and that [Roberto's] blood was the paint. The walls were filled with carefully drawn ornate designs, carefully rendered. I was awestruck by what occurred in this room."

That was reported in July 2001. Capozzi has since left the agency. She and Barbara Cerepanya, a longtime juvenile rights advocate and former public defender, wound up representing the family of Christopher Camacho, the first boy to commit suicide in 2002. Cerepanya says she's the one who got Capozzi her job as ombudsman. The director at the time, David Gaspar, had offered Cerepanya the job, but she refused (and suggested Capozzi) because she wanted autonomy.

"It will never serve its function. You will not allow it," she recalls saying to Gaspar at the time she turned him down.

Cerepanya says now that she was right (Capozzi's time at ADJC was reportedly very contentious). She laments the fact that ADJC still does not have an independent ombudsman. She also regrets not pushing harder, the first time around, for an independent oversight committee. Cerepanya served on the Upchurch vs. Johnson task force, created in the early 1990s to ensure appropriate reforms were taking place. She had no idea conditions had deteriorated in its wake, until New Times started asking questions in 2000.

She is not hopeful now. When told that the current task force visited Utah recently, to see that state's cutting-edge rehabilitative system, Cerepanya sighs over her lunch special at the Wild Thaiger restaurant on Central Avenue.

"We went to Utah," she says. It's true. Jan Christian, who headed the Upchurch task force, confirms that her group traveled to Utah and Colorado, to see those states' systems.

Nothing changed then, and Cerepanya fears nothing will change now.

She might be wrong. Mark Steward, who headed the Missouri Division of Youth Services, retired last year from the department after 35 years and started a consulting business to help other states create juvenile rehabilitative facilities like Missouri's. He's been to Arizona twice in the past two years and has been talking to Judge Ronan and others about recommendations to adopt Missouri's model.

When Steward took his agency's helm in 1988 (he'd joined in 1970 as a counselor), the first thing he did was call Russ Van Vleet. There was no pending litigation; Steward simply wanted an outside consultant to help him make things better. He was having overcrowding and staff problems.

Today, Missouri is a national model. The pictures a task force member brought back from a recent visit show sunny rooms with smiley-face sheets and kids playing band instruments. The idea, Steward says, is to give the kids love and treat them better than they've ever been treated. The agency's never had a suicide, which Steward attributes to higher staffing, a less restrictive environment (although there are still fences with locks), and a system that encourages the kids to watch out for one another.

"We went from the total corrections model, and we found out it really worked to treat kids the best they'd ever been treated," he says. "You've got one shot with these kids usually, and we said, 'Let's give them everything we can.'"

In so doing, Steward cut costs by eliminating some security staff.

He's currently working with Louisiana (once the worst juvenile corrections system in the nation) and Washington, D.C. (not far behind), and will likely bring on California as a client.

It's not always an easy sell. A visitor from San Jose remarked, "What are you gonna call it, 'Hug a Thug'?" Steward recalls.

True, he says, "You see more hugging going on than anything else." Counselors and kids are on a first-name basis; there is a lot of sharing and therapy.

But Steward says it's increased employee retention, a huge problem in Arizona. "The staff love it! It becomes a family-like environment. And we've got some tough kids, don't get me wrong."

Once they're out on the street, Steward says, the kids are warned, "Don't hug 'em and don't trust 'em!" Most, he adds, do very well back in the real world.

On a recent Tuesday morning, the razor wire on the top of the fence at Black Canyon, ADJC's school for girls, looks almost pretty against the huge white and gray clouds forming in the sky. A huge metal door clangs as it shuts behind a visitor, signaling that this is prison, despite the nice landscaping. A corrections officer checks in visitors; behind her, a small radio blares Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust."

Like the other ADJC facilities, Black Canyon's cells have been retrofitted to reduce suicide attempts. A more obvious change, since the new federal investigation, is the addition of a culinary school. At Adobe Mountain, the boys' school next door, there's now a large room devoted to vocational ed — the boys learn how to frame a door, wire electricity, and work on car engines.

The kids wear yellow shirts, khakis with elastic waists, and tennis shoes that close with Velcro. (Belts and shoelaces are hazardous.) Rows of boys march quietly across the grounds, heads bowed, hands behind their backs as though they were cuffed.

At Adobe Mountain, there is a new health unit — thanks to the state Legislature, and an impressive lobbying push based on not only the federal investigation but the new federal law requiring increased health privacy.

ADJC has been pretty good at getting money from the Legislature to change the physical environment at its schools, but "school" is still a hopeful euphemism. Academics have improved, and a teacher who used to be very critical of the administration praises Michael Branham for getting involved, visiting classrooms, making sure security staff are there to help teachers. ADJC is now in compliance with special education laws; about 45 percent of the kids in custody qualify for special ed, a staggering figure requiring a lot of extra work.

But still, Adobe Mountain is no school. It is a prison. And nowhere is that more obvious than in the housing facilities. Armando Gomez, who has worked for the agency for 17 years, starting as a youth corrections officer, is now superintendent of Adobe Mountain. He shows off "January," a housing unit that has just been renovated to comply with the call for suicide-proofing and increased safety measures.

Gomez points to cameras that have been placed in the ceiling throughout the facility (the bathrooms are a problem; you can't monitor them, because of privacy) and walks into a tiny cell. It is as harsh as any prison, with fluorescent lights, linoleum, fresh white paint on the cinderblock walls and pine-green metal plates serving as bunk beds. Kids will move back into January in a few days, Gomez says, and his renovation project will be close to done.

There is still work to do. The staff to kid ratio at Adobe Mountain is still 1 to 24 at night. The department needs to get to 1 to 12. Gomez insists exclusion (the locking of kids in their cells) is no longer used, but Russ Van Vleet, one of the federal monitors, points out that in their most recent report, the monitors observed that kids are still sometimes locked in their cells as punishment. (Two of the three boys who hanged themselves at Adobe Mountain did so while in exclusion.)

When asked how this federal investigation has affected Adobe Mountain, Gomez says it's really just "fine-tuning" what was learned from Upchurch vs. Johnson. That is troubling, if you've read the list of violations detailed in the 2004 federal investigation — many of them at Adobe Mountain, addressing issues like a severe lack of services for seriously mentally ill children.

Gomez emphasizes that, this time, it's really been about upgrading physical properties.

ADJC Director Michael Branham admits it's much more. Armed with a venti Starbucks and speaking from prepared talking points during the brief interview he granted New Times, he gives a soliloquy about how the culture is changing at ADJC, and how this time, the changes will be permanent.

But Russ Van Vleet isn't so sure. And Judge Ronan, who chairs the current task force, has been listening to Van Vleet.

Ronan and the task force are submitting their recommendations about a permanent oversight committee to the governor within the next two weeks, and plan to make broader recommendations — maybe suggesting the Missouri model — early in 2007.

"We had this discussion with Director Branham in the room, and a number of us said this is absolutely no reflection on your leadership or what you've done. If there was some way to guarantee that he would be there forever, we probably wouldn't need an oversight committee.

"But things change," Ronan says. "Administrations change."

The November 2, 2006, story "Teenage Wasteland" should have reported that Barbara Cerepanya and Joel Robbins represented the Camacho family. Also, Barbara Cerepanya chose Terri Capozzi for the ADJC job of Youth Rights Specialist only after Capozzi applied for the job. Capozzi and Cerepanya did not know one another prior to that. Cerepanya asked then-director David Gaspar to create a position for an ombudsman who would have outside authority to assist parents in finding lawyers to sue the department if it was not responsive to legitimate concerns. Gaspar did not create the position; it was never created.

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