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Public Interest Group Petitions Alabama Supreme Court to Release Children in Juvenile Facilities Due to COVID-19 Outbreak

Montgomery, Alabama -- With hundreds of deaths and thousands of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alabama, the Children and Youth Advocacy Network (CYAN) has petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court to take immediate statewide action to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in youth detention facilities. CYAN is a network of Alabama advocates and organizations committed to protecting the safety, health and the overall best interests of Alabama’s children. 

The petition, filed on Thursday by attorneys with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, and the law firm of Blume & Blume, asks the Alabama Supreme Court to order the state’s lower courts to immediately act to decrease the number of children ordered to detention, correctional and other residential facilities in Alabama, and require facilities housing remaining youth observe preventative measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.The Alabama Supreme Court has already taken similar action with five emergency orders since March 12 that declared a judicial state of emergency and directed inferior courts to close courthouses, cancel trials and conduct hearings by videoconference. Courts in other states have taken similar action. 

The World Health Organization has cautioned that children are not spared when they contract COVID-19. Worldwide young people make up a “significant proportion” of patients requiring hospitalizations, and 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 about six percent of infected children and 11 percent of infants were sometimes hospitalized for weeks. 

The following is a statement from Claire Sherburne, staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

“In most juvenile facilities ‘social distancing’ is not possible. 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 forced isolation 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. 

“As is true with the general Alabama population, COVID-19 disproporationately impacts communities of color. Without intervention by the Supreme Court, the same will be true for juvenile facilities. Black children are almost four times more likely to be detained or committed than white children in Alabama. Black 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.”

The following is a statement from Brock Boone, staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Children are particularly vulnerable because they are reliant on adults to care for them. 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 following is a statement from Rhonda Brownstein, legal director of the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program.

“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.”

The following is a statement from Gar Blume, partner at Blume & Blume.

"The goal of Alabama’s juvenile justice system is rehabilitative, not punitive.  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."

The petition can be read here.