By Colbert I. King
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Dogs in animal shelters have it better. At least they sleep alone at night.
The same cannot be said of the young people detained at the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services' Youth Services Center in Northeast.
That 80-bed facility is so crowded that as recently as last week, as many as 10 youths had to sleep together in Room 1600, a 23-by-34-foot space.
What's more, on any given night, juveniles can be found sleeping in areas that house the center's medical office (10 by 14 feet) and the intake office (10 by 13 feet).
These sleeping arrangements violate a Superior Court-approved plan that the city negotiated as the result of a consent decree. Under the plan, the population of the Youth Services Center (YSC) is allowed to increase to 88 people, each in single rooms, and may rise to 96 for up to seven nights per month.
The facts, contained in YSC daily population reports that I obtained from a D.C. government source, say otherwise:
· Nov. 8: regular population 108, including two residents sleeping in room 1600.
· Nov. 10: regular population 122, plus six overnighters. Ten residents sleeping in Room 1600; four sleeping in the intake office; and one in the medical unit.
· Nov. 12: regular population 120, including nine sleeping in room 1600 and seven overnighters in the intake office.
· Nov. 13: regular population 121, plus nine overnighters in the intake office.
This has gone on for months.
Alan Pemberton, counsel for the plaintiffs who sued the city's juvenile justice system, said in an interview that the youth center's population spike might have resulted from an increase in juvenile arrests and court-ordered secure detentions, and to a recently enacted speedy-trial measure that is meant to resolve cases more quickly.
A July report to the court by special arbiter Grace Lopes on reform efforts at the YSC in Northeast and at the DYRS Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel offered another explanation. She cited statements by city officials who said that some YSC population increases have been caused by a 2007 decision to house in the YSC, instead of at Oak Hill, youths who are rearrested and ordered into secure detention.
Whatever the causes, conditions at the YSC mock the consent decree, which directs the city "to provide a humane environment . . . and 'maintain' each detained youth to prevent his deterioration during the period of his detention."
Packing juveniles into a room, night after night, hardly counts as an uplifting adolescent experience.
The YSC situation is no secret, except to D.C. taxpayers who are footing the multimillion-dollar bill for these facilities.
But how concerned are city officials?
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) has oversight responsibility for the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. This week, I asked him via e-mail when he last visited the youth center in Northeast.
An e-mail response from his aide, Charles Allen, said Wells "has visited the YSC several times." Allen added that his boss has organized basketball games at the YSC, and he said that Wells has invited me to join him "for their next game."
I repeated my query. Wells responded on Wednesday: "I was last out there 10 months ago."
In a follow-up e-mail, Wells said he was told that "commitments [court placement of juveniles in DYRS custody] were running double from previous years." Wells said that when he raised concerns about the size of the new Oak Hill facility, which will have a capacity of only 60 beds, he was told that the plan is to use a mix of residential treatment placements to control the numbers.
Wells also noted that there is space in community-based group homes for young people awaiting trial, now that his speedy-trial bill has been enacted.
If this is too convoluted, let me break it down.
The city is building a new Oak Hill facility with space to house 60 youths requiring secure detention. That is substantially below the capacity of the current, dilapidated facility, which, according to a court report, housed approximately 93 young people as of July 2.
So how is the DYRS planning to handle the overflow of youths requiring secure detention?
The agency, according to the Lopes report, is developing a new assessment process that it believes "will result in a net decrease in the population of committed youth who are securely committed at Oak Hill and its successor facility."
Under the new process, youths determined by judges to require secure detention will be reassessed by the DYRS using the new evaluative scheme with the aim of placing them in halfway houses and residential treatment centers.
Put another way, the new "process" will define away the need to place some youths in secure detention. And they will be off the hands of Oak Hill and the YSC.
That's good news for troubled youths. D.C. residents, hunker down.
This week, I also asked the chief judges of the Superior Court and the Family Court, and the judge overseeing the consent decree, when they last visited the YSC. After all, each has placed youths under DYRS supervision.
I'm still waiting for answers.