JULIAN – Members of the Advisory Board of the Donald R. Kuhn Juvenile Detention Center in Julian say the center is no longer providing services in a secure and safe environment.
“For many years, the DRK center, along with the other regional centers, admirably fulfilled its mission in rehabilitating, educating and house the juveniles sent to them by the courts,” the board said in a letter to the editor of the Coal Valley News in Madison. “DRK delivered these services in a secure and safe environment. This is no longer true.”
The center was established in 2003 and became a part of a more contemporary and humane system of juvenile justice services in West Virginia. Inmates at the center are generally housed in locked cells during the night and are provided certain privileges such as the use of a recreation area, TV, phones and in some cases may have a job within the prison. They are also providing education.
However, after Mountain State Justice sued the state Division of Juvenile Services over conditions at the Salem Industrial Home, it was closed in 2013.
The board members point to this closure as a starting point for what they called a trend in violent incidents at juvenile detention centers around the state.
In a report by the Charleston Gazette in May 2014, the year after the closing of the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem, officials at the West Virginia Department of Juvenile Services were still scrambling to find permanent homes for youth offenders.
A shuffling around led to significant overcrowding in several of the state’s facilities, which led to security risks for staff and residents alike, the newspaper reported.
On Feb. 18, 2014, one resident at the Donald R. Kuhn Center got into a fight with another resident, resulting in a broken jaw.
Also in April, 2014, residents at the Lorrie Yeager Detention Center, which was at max capacity, created a “near riot” situation, resulting in more than $40,000 in damages.
In another incident, at least five residents at the Gene Spadaro Juvenile Center, in Fayette County, attempted an escape. The residents waited until the midnight staff took over and then attempted to spray a correctional officer with cleaning solution. The young offenders also were armed with water bottles, it was reported.
In Sept. 2014, three residents at the DRK juvenile detention center in Boone County were assessed for internal disciplinary allegations after they damaged property during an incident at the facility, a state official reported.
It was reported that the residents were objecting to their evening routine when the incident happened in the all-purpose room. The residents broke a window, ceiling lights and a flat screen TV. Damage is estimated to be $5,000 or less, according to previously published reports.
State Police were called, but there was no lockdown of the facility. No other residents were involved and no injuries were reported.
One of the allegations at the time was that the residents fashioned some of the broken items into weapons, in some news reports. At that time, 39 residents were being held at the 46-bed facility, so it was not overcrowding issue.
The DRK advisory board, cited an incident in May 2015 as the final violence incident in what they call a “trend” and say they can no longer remain silent about their concerns for the safety of the youth, staff and community at the DRK center and all centers across the state.
In the May 2015 incident, several staff members at a detention facility in Boone County were injured when they were attacked by a handful of juveniles at the center, a state official said.
One of the juveniles was armed with an aluminum pipe when the incident occurred in the recreation area at DRK, it was reported.
Some of the staff members sustained bruises and leg injuries and a broken wrist while they were detaining the juveniles. Some of the staff members were transported to Boone Memorial Hospital for treatment.
“There were 13 staff members sent to the hospital in that incident in May,” said advisory board member Delores Cook. “Though extreme, this is part of an escalating trend at the facility.”
The incident lasted about 10 or 15 minutes, and there was minimal property damage, reports indicated. Boone County sheriff’s deputies also responded.
The juveniles were returned to the detention center.
“It seemed as if the center in Julian was operating smoothly, until the Salem home was shut down and the state began an overhaul of the juvenile detention system,” Cook said. “Then it became a maximum security facility, but it also houses other types of juvenile offenders and mixes violent and non-violent offenders at the same center. We believe this could also be part of the problem.”
West Virginia is getting a well-timed boost toward ensuring the success of its new, ground-breaking juvenile justice reforms, according to Lawrence Messina, communications director for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed his historic measure, Senate Bill 393, into law on Thursday, April 2, of this year following its passage by a unanimous Legislature. The reforms reflect recommendations from the West Virginia Intergovernmental Task Force on Juvenile Justice, created by Gov. Tomblin and assisted by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
“Right now the DRK center is the best place for juvenile offenders that need maximum security,” he said.
The overhaul of the juvenile justice system affected seven of the 11 facilities and followed the court rulings involving the system in both 2012 and 2013.
“Juveniles offenders and not treated like adult offenders in West Virginia,” Messina said. “We do not call juvenile offenders inmates, like we do adult offenders.”
West Virginia is one of a handful of states that has been moving in the opposite direction regarding the incarceration of juveniles. It confines juveniles at a rate 42 percent higher than the nation, and according to federal data, has had the largest jump in youth incarceration since 2001 of any state.
Messina says that is going to change very soon.
“With the passing of the new legislation we are going to see a significant amount of reduction in the number of juvenile offenders entering into the system,” he said. “The low-level status offenders will not longer be a part of the system”
Also, on Dec. 11, 2014, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin received recommendations and a final report from the West Virginia Intergovernmental Task Force on Juvenile Justice.
In June 2014, the governor launched a comprehensive review of the state’s juvenile justice system and charged the task force with developing specific recommendations to strengthen and improve West Virginia’s juvenile system.
“As we continue to put emphasis on reforming West Virginia’s justice system, we must also move toward a more effective approach for juveniles – one that embraces community-based programming and tells our children we care about them and their future,” Gov. Tomblin said. “This comprehensive review provides us with the information we need to create better opportunities to improve outcomes for our youth and their families and increase accountability for juveniles and the justice system, while also protecting public safety and responsibly managing our state’s finances.”
The final report highlights the need for a stronger network of evidence-based programming in communities across the state, which will permit many lower-level offenders to be safely and more effectively held accountable in their home communities.
Among the specific recommendations: expanding opportunities for early intervention and diversion by providing additional tools in schools to address truancy; enhancing effective community services and expanding evidence-based options to give judges proven tools to reduce juvenile delinquency; increasing data collection and information sharing to ensure taxpayer dollars are used in the most efficient ways; and targeting system resources to the right youth at the right time to further reduce re-offending.
“The governor has always taken a lead on juvenile justice in West Virginia and will continue to do so,” said Chris Stadelman, a spokesman for the governor’s office.
The task force was established through a collaborative, bipartisan effort of West Virginia’s three branches of government. It focused on the state’s juvenile system including services provided through the Division of Juvenile Services, Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Education, according to the governor.
However, the recommendations contained in the report from the task force are focused solely on the increase in the number of status offenders and lower level misdemeanants entering West Virginia’s juvenile justice system and do not pertain to serious or violent crimes, which the advisory board of the Donald R. Kuhn Center says are the juvenile offenders that should be focused on to provide a more secure and safe environment.
To view recommendations made by the West Virginia Intergovernmental Task Force on Juvenile Justice, visit the online .pdf file of the report at http://www.governor.wv.gov/Documents/WV%20Report%20FINAL.pdf
During the process of making the report to the governor, the task force discovered a remarkable shift in the profile of youth entering West Virginia’s juvenile justice system over the past decade. Succinctly, the vast majority of youth now entering West Virginia’s juvenile justice system are being adjudicated for lower-level offenses, including status offenses.
Status offenses are acts that would not be a crime if committed by an adult, such as truancy, consumption of alcohol or tobacco products, or running away from home. Delinquency offenses, on the other hand, are offenses that would be considered crimes regardless of age.
Board members said focusing on the status offenders my help in reducing overcrowding population problems, but they feel those youth sent to detention and correctional facilities are still facing worsening conditions, while staff, already beleaguered, leave in desperation.
“As a board, we have witnessed the facility’s administration struggle to cope with impossible conditions,” the board said in its letter. “Why is this so? First, the facility was not designed to service the current population mix and second, the facility does not have an adequate staff to client ratio.”
A 2014 Juvenile Justice Commission report said in part, “With the closing of the WV Industrial Home for Youth and the relocation of the Harriet Jones Sex Offender Program, the Division of Juvenile Services has undergone a realignment of facility functions. With these changes the number of beds substantially decreased. This led to significant concerns about overcrowding and mixed populations.”
In Jan. of this year, the Legislative Auditor’s Office reported that the state Division of Juvenile Services spent about $3.5 million to renovate a juvenile facility in Davis, W.Va., and then abandoned the project with the work incomplete.
The report said the agency’s reasons for stopping the project were foreseeable when it began. The office recommended that the agency develop a procedure to gauge cost versus benefit for future construction and renovation projects.
The Associated Press reported that the agency began renovating the Davis Center after juveniles were transferred to a new facility in 2009. The project was halted around Dec. 2013.
In its response to the AP story, the agency says it leased the property from the state Division of Natural Resources. The agency said the DNR was working with other agencies to covert the property to a canning facility.
The board members pointed to the report in their belief that another facility in the state could help emlinate some of the problems with violent incidents.
“The more centers or places you have the more options you have,” Cook said. “We have appealed for assistance from members of the state Supreme Court, the Juvenile Justice Commission and the state Legislature.
Messina says Donald R. Kuhn (DRK) Director Michael Hale believes that his facility is safe.
“There are no current crisis nor looming significant issues other than one of staffing numbers required to adequately maintain safe operation,” Hale said.
Hale added that “We are maintaining adequate staffing numbers however our overtime costs have been high,” and observed that “Structurally, the building is sound and designed to be of maximum security level standards.” As Director Hale’s statement directly rebut the allegations by the advisory board members, I urge their inclusion.
Messina added that under the leadership of Director Stephanie Bond, the Division of Juvenile Services is taking several proactive steps to improve conditions at DRK.
“These measures include new training aimed at reducing room isolations, which research has shown improves resident behavior, and assistance from the Performance-based Standards (http://pbstandards.org) program,” he said. “Participants in PbS’s data-driven improvement model report that it improves conditions at juvenile facilities for staff and residents alike.”
Messina says the sweeping juvenile justice reforms championed by Gov. Tomblin and signed into law earlier this year (SB 393) will benefit DRK in several ways. It will:
a. Reduce the overall population at DRK by Jan. 1 when the Robert R. Shell Juvenile Center in Cabell County ceases accepting status offender cases;
b. Reduce the overall population at DRK through increased use of Youth Reporting Centers and other alternatives to further the goal of keeping at-risk youths in their homes and communities and out of such institutional settings as a juvenile center whenever possible.
c. Reduce the number of youths ordered to DRK for diagnostic evaluations.
d. Allow the Division of Juvenile Services to reinvest the savings expected from reducing out-of-home placements on bolstering resources focused on the most challenging youths in the division’s custody. The Division of Juvenile Services will have more funds, workforce and other resources to devote to dealing with the system’s most serious cases.
“The proactive measures pursued by Director Bond and the provisions of the juvenile justice reform legislation will allow the Division of Juvenile Services to review the populations currently assigned to DRK,” Messina said.
DRK is currently home to detained youths awaiting resolution of their cases, youths required to undergo diagnostic evaluations and youths committed to the Division of Juvenile Service’s custody by court order. The commitment juveniles and higher-risk detention youth are housed in one wing of the facility and diagnostic youth and lower-risk detention youth are housed in a separate wing. The diagnostic youths are kept separate from the higher-risk youth.
“I have participated in numerous discussions about DRK and the May incident,” Messina said. “No one, ever, has sought to blame staff. Staff are to be commended for quickly and decisively getting the majority of the DRK residents to safety, isolating the culprits and preventing them from causing further harm. The May incident showed that once again, the dedicated staff of the Division of Juvenile Services go above and beyond to fulfill their vital public safety mission. They have among the most difficult jobs in West Virginia, and carry them out admirably in the face of numerous challenges.”
Just a few weeks ago, the Associated Press reported that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is outlining a new push to overhaul West Virginia’s juvenile justice system.
Tomblin was in Huntington in late June discussing reforms that passed last legislative session.
With the law, truancy diversion specialists will be in every county and youth reporting centers will expand statewide, the governor said. He said substance abuse recovery services, mental health programs and family therapies will grow.
Tomblin has said a task force’s suggestions, which shaped the sweep legislative reform on juvenile justice and detention, would reduce state juvenile justice facility populations by at least 40 percent by 2020, while reducing projected costs by more than $59 million.
He has put a $5.4 million price tag on the project.
The law incorporated research and technical assistance by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the governor said.
The board applauded the governor’s efforts and others as well, but still feels the problem of mixing population, which was mentioned in 2014 Juvenile Justice Commission report still needs addressed.
The advisory board said they wanted to make it prefectly clear that they were in no way placing blame on anyone in particular and felt the staff at the DRK center was the best in the state.
“We are compelled to caution against the easy, yet cynical response of blaming those in the trenches,” Cook added. “Rather, the current crisis calls for the leaders of the Tomblin Administration, the courts and the Legislature to work to address the current dangerous conditions in our state centers.”
Some board members said they feared the state might try to do away with the advisory board or blame and even fire staff members.
“The employees are very well trained, the center is clean and operated well, but it is not equipped to handle the crisis and dangerous situations it currently finds itself in,” Cook said. “We want this serious issue to be taken up again by the governor, the Legislature and all the state agencies involved in juvenile justice in West Virginia. This must be addressed and investigated again due to the increased concern by so many for the safety of the kids and the staff at these centers.”
Fred Pace is an editor for Civitas Media. He can be reached at 304-369-1165, ext. 1661, in Madison; at 304-752-6950, ext. 1729 in Logan; by email at email@example.com or @fcpace62 on Twitter.