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SPLC fights to keep children out of juvenile detention, other confined settings during pandemic

Confined to a juvenile residential facility as the COVID-19 pandemic spread, Denise tried to stay at least six feet away from others, but it was a difficult task: Staff members in the remote residential facility for children about two hours south of Montgomery, Alabama, did not wear masks or require the children to wear them.

Nor did they enforce any of the social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus within the cabins used to house the children. Denise slept in a cabin with nine other girls – and a staff person who supervised them overnight. She was exposed to staff, doctors and therapists who came and went from the facility, but were not tested for COVID-19. Even with the health risks, the girls had to clean the bathroom they shared in their cabin.

“It was impossible to do social distancing in such a small cabin for 10 people,” said Denise, 17, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “They gave us a brief talk about it, explaining what the symptoms are and how to not get them. Social distancing wasn’t really enforced by the group leaders. They didn’t really take steps to protect us from COVID-19.”

After spending four months in the residential placement, Denise – who was arrested at school and detained after an incident involving a cell phone in class – went home about a month early after the Southern Poverty Law Center argued for her release to protect her from the coronavirus.

The case is part of a broader initiative the SPLC and its partners have undertaken to free young people in danger of the coronavirus – and other health risks – from juvenile detention facilities, correctional facilities and other group placements. The SPLC is looking to represent more youth who have been detained during the pandemic.

The Children and Youth Advocacy Network (CYAN), a coalition of advocacy organizations that includes the SPLC, recently petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court to take immediate statewide action to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in juvenile facilities by ensuring that fewer children are held in them.

Children eat, sleep and live in close quarters’

“In most juvenile facilities, social distancing is not conceivable,” said Claire Sherburne, a staff attorney with the SPLC Children’s Rights Practice Group. “Children eat, sleep and live in close quarters with each other, making it near impossible for facilities to protect young people from the spread of COVID-19. The alternative is to implement solitary confinement, which is shown to result in devastating consequences for children and adolescents, including anxiety, depression, self-harm, psychosis, exacerbation of underlying trauma disorders and suicide.”

The petition, filed by the SPLC, the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, and the law firm of Blume & Blume, asks the Alabama Supreme Court to order the state’s lower-level courts to reduce the number of children in detention, correctional and other residential facilities. The petition also asks the state Supreme Court to order those courts to require juvenile facilities to take measures that would prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Alabama Supreme Court has taken similar action with 10 emergency orders since March 12, declaring a judicial state of emergency and directing lower-level courts to close courthouses, cancel trials and conduct hearings by videoconference.

Similar concerns about protecting young people in detention from COVID-19 have led to action in other states. Officials in Maryland recently released about 200 children from youth detention facilities to keep kids safe during the pandemic. In Georgia, nearly 100 youth in detention have been released early in response to the pandemic to limit exposure to the virus.

“The goal of Alabama’s juvenile justice system is rehabilitative, not punitive,” said Gar Blume, partner at Blume & Blume, part of the CYAN coalition. “Children are sent to out-of-home custodial placements for therapeutic purposes. The trauma children experience due to fear of the COVID-19 pandemic while confined far from family and home renders rehabilitation impracticable, if not impossible. During these uniquely challenging times, the majority of children in custodial placements can be better served in their home communities. Our society will be far better for it.”

Black children like Denise, who are overrepresented in youth detention facilities, are particularly in danger.

“COVID-19 disproportionately impacts communities of color,” Sherburne said. “Without intervention by the Supreme Court, the same will be true within juvenile facilities. Black children are almost four times more likely to be detained or committed than white children in Alabama. Black and Latinx children suffer from most major chronic diseases including asthma, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular issues at higher rates than their white peers, making them particularly vulnerable to serious harm as a result of COVID-19.”

Children are not spared from the effects of COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization. Around the world, young people make up a “significant proportion” of patients requiring hospitalizations. Sometimes, young people die of the disease and other times they need to be hospitalized for weeks. One of the largest studies of pediatric COVID-19 patients showed that about 6% of infected children and 11% of infants were sometimes hospitalized for weeks, according to the petition.

Young people with disabilities are also disproportionately impacted by this pandemic.

“Many children in Alabama’s juvenile facilities have underlying health issues and disabilities that render them especially vulnerable to serious harm in the event of an outbreak,” said Rhonda Brownstein, legal director of the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, part of the CYAN coalition.

What’s more, taking children from their homes and placing them in confinement – even when there is not a pandemic – causes harm, leaving them with higher rates of both medical and psychiatric problems and shorter lifespans, the petition states.

‘Protect the children’

“Children are particularly vulnerable because they are reliant on adults to care for them.” said Brock Boone, a staff attorney for the SPLC Criminal Justice Reform Group. “Arrangements must be made for the safe release of many children, along with appropriate preventative measures taken to protect the children not released from juvenile facilities.”

The SPLC is working to get more children like Denise out of juvenile facilities and other group settings during the pandemic, and keep them out.

Denise, who is in the 11th grade, was arrested at her school in September. On Dec. 16, after a brief stay at home while awaiting a court date, Denise was placed in a residential treatment facility, where she was ordered to work towards her GED certificate. This series of unfortunate events led her into a situation where she was especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

“Denise’s experience underscores that social distancing is impossible in these settings, and that hundreds of children in Alabama – and thousands across the country – are in danger,” said Sherburne, the SPLC attorney. “In fact, over half of the states across the country have confirmed cases of COVID-19 in juvenile facilities. Without action, Alabama is certain to follow.”

‘Happy to be home’

By arguing that Denise should be released from detention because she was not safe from the coronavirus there, the SPLC got her out on April 10.

“I’m happy to be home,” she said. “I do feel safer at home.”

The SPLC and its partners will continue to push for more children to be released from juvenile detention to protect them from COVID-19 and the other harms.

“Alabama must reduce the number of children locked up in juvenile detention for minor offenses, especially when their health is at risk from COVID-19,” said Jonathan Barry-Blocker, a staff attorney for the SPLC Criminal Justice Reform Group. “We will continue pushing for Alabama to free more children. Alabama has a duty to protect all children in the state. Instead of exposing our children to disease outbreaks, the state should protect them from harm.”

Photo by Ricard Ross / Juvenile-in-Justice