Juvenile workers say staff assaults go unchecked

AP News
|
Posted: Jun 19, 2011 1:37 PM
Juvenile workers say staff assaults go unchecked

As a group worker at a juvenile correctional center, John Prevatt is willing to take an occasional punch or elbow as he tries to keep the teens who live there in line.

But Prevatt has had his nose broken, been kicked in the head, had two concussions and nearly had his neck fractured, all by the teens he is charged with helping.

For Prevatt and workers in several states, the dangers of the job have become overwhelming, a byproduct of what they call overly permissive policies of the state Department of Youth Services and a resistance to involve law enforcement. Jane Tewksbury, DYS commissioner for Massachusetts, said reporting assaults to prosecutors goes against the core mission of the juvenile justice system: to rehabilitate youth.

This week, Massachusetts lawmakers are poised to consider a bill that would make it mandatory for DYS to report serious assaults to local district attorneys for possible prosecution. A public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

In New York, a series of videos released by a whistleblower on YouTube earlier this year show assaults on both staff and juveniles, including two young people attacking a staff member and a large group smashing furniture.

In Maryland, a 13-year-old boy at a juvenile detention center was charged last year in the death of a 65-year-old teacher, who was beaten, sexually assaulted and choked. An investigation found that the slaying was the result of "multiple systemic security failures," including outdated buildings and a shortage of security cameras and radios for staff.

In Massachusetts, there were 182 assaults on staff by youths during the 9-month period ending in February, according to figures provided by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93, which represents more than 45,000 employees in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

DYS was asked to provide data on assaults from 2008 through the first three months of 2011, but didn't supply the information.

"When I come through the door, I just feel like I have no rights," said Prevatt, who works at a secure locked facility for boys in Westborough, Mass. "It's very unsafe and it's basically enter at your own risk."

DYS workers say they're discouraged from reporting the incidents to police, and if they do, they're told to handle it on their own.

But Tewksbury says the department connects assaulted workers with counselors through its employee assistance unit and also supports workers through an internal review board, which can recommend sanctions for violent teens, including extending their time in DYS custody and delaying their return to the community.

Tewksbury said many of the youths in DYS custody have troubled histories and need extensive treatment. Their relationships with DYS workers, called direct care workers, are crucial to them learning to trust adults, she said.

"The reason the kids got committed to the department is they represent a level of risk to public safety that led a judge to incarcerate them at DYS. So if we were to take those behaviors that got them to DYS and then put them on a track into (adult) jail, would we actually exacerbate the criminality and lose the opportunity we have for their rehabilitation?" Tewksbury said.

"What would the point be of the juvenile justice system?" she said.

Eileen Carpenter, a former member of the New York Commission of Correction, said she released the videos on YouTube because she was afraid a staff member or a teen would get killed. Some staff members have complained that the violence has worsened under the policies of Gladys Carrion, the commissioner of New York's Office of Children and Family Services. They said residents are no longer required to walk in lines with hands clasped behind their backs and can skip school and programs without consequences.

"I remember telling my boss, `This is getting worse," Carpenter said in a recent interview. "There was a riot here, there was a riot there; we should be doing something about this.' "

Carrion declined to be interviewed. Her spokeswoman, Susan Steele, said in March that the safety of staff and residents is the agency's top concern and that officials have installed surveillance cameras and upgraded security systems.

Patrick Moran, director of AFSCME Maryland, said staffing shortages and unclear guidelines on how to handle unruly youths make it difficult for workers. He said assaults on workers are reported internally, but not to authorities.

"Our members feel that there has to be some accountability. If you are going to assault someone, you need to be held accountable," Moran said.

A spokesman for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.

Prevatt's supervisor, Jason Narris, said disciplinary policies under Tewksbury have been relaxed to the point that there are few consequences for teens who assault workers.

Narris said staff used to be able to put an out-of-control teen in a room for two hours, with the possibility of another two hours if the behavior continued. Now, workers are pressured to get the teens out of their rooms quickly, he said.

"My boss is always saying, `Get him out, get him out,' but it's not enough time," Narris said. "They need more time for the safety of everyone."

Narris said he received a concussion, broken nose, two black eyes and other injuries last year when he was beaten by three teens. One of the boys kicked him in the back of the head, Narris said.

"Mentally, it probably did more damage than it did physically," Narris said. "The whole experience was traumatic on my family ... it was brutal. Nobody should have to be treated like that."

Tewksbury said that before she became commissioner six years ago, unruly kids could be kept in their rooms indefinitely. The new policy, changed after two teens committed suicide in 2004 and 2005, allows workers to keep teens confined to their rooms for up to 12 hours but requires staff to continually engage with them, she said.

"If a youth continues to present a risk to the safety and security of the unit, there are very clear steps that can be taken to maintain that kid in his room," Tewksbury said. "What you can't do is put a kid in his room and leave him there."

Prevatt and Narris agreed to speak to The Associated Press on behalf of the union, but not on behalf of DYS.

Narris decided to push for criminal charges against the three youths he said attacked him.

"I was told, `The department doesn't do that (press charges),'" Narris said. "I feel firmly that that is the department's responsibility _ to protect their employees."