Out of Mind

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“Everybody calls it Rugburn City,” says Carl, 17, about the Louis Gossett, Jr., Residential Center, where he was incarcerated for gang violence. “I still have a scar on my face to this day.” After a verbal spat with a staff member, he says, he was pulled from his room and physically restrained. “There’s four staff on you: two on your arms; two on your legs. And they’re scraping your face on the carpet. The staff really messed me up.”

Kids in juvie are tough, of course, and wrestling maneuvers are a necessary survival tool for those supervising them. But many teens who have done time upstate describe rug burns as an intentional–and indelible–result of overzealous restraint holds. They also report harassment, homophobic slurs, overmedication, unsanitary conditions and sexual advances from staff.

Yet juvenile residential centers run by the Office of Children and Family Services–which range from small community homes to massive campuses rimmed with razor wire–are rarely inspected by outsiders. While they are overseen by an ombudsman, independent review board, and volunteer citizen advisory boards, all of these report to the agency itself. Legal Aid used to visit, but its last report dates back to 1999.

“These young people are very isolated,” says Kim Hawkins, director of the Peter Cicchino Youth Project of the Urban Justice Center, which monitors LGBT youth in state care. “It’s a comedy of errors just to get a conversation by phone.”

When problems are brought to light, they’re handled internally, if at all. A youth restrained at Lou Gossett in 1996 suffered brain damage and later died, yet teens who stay there continue to report abuse by staff members. When asked about the center, OCFS said it couldn’t comment due to client confidentiality. It’s a screen that serves two purposes: protecting both the teens and the facilities themselves.

That’s why activists are pushing for the creation of an Office of the Child Advocate. A6334, a bill sponsored by Assemblymember Barbara Clark, would establish an independent office to oversee all state services for children, including foster care and juvenile justice. “Children are moving between these systems, but the systems themselves are fragmented,” says Gertrud Lenzer, a professor at the Brooklyn College Children’s Studies Center, who helped facilitate a discussion on the matter. “This will really bring them together.”

Other states have already created such offices. In Connecticut, Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein has successfully pushed for reform at the state’s troubled correctional school. In New Jersey, Child Advocate Kevin Ryan conducted an investigation into the state’s 17 detention facilities and found that adolescents with profound mental health needs were going untreated.

Here in New York, oversight of adjudicated youth falls to one man with a nearly impossible job: Robert Dodig, the OCFS ombudsman, is expected to oversee 2,900 youth in 44 facilities.

OCFS argues that it has other safeguards in place. All its centers are accredited by the American Correctional Association and staff are trained annually on use of force, explains spokesperson Brian Marchetti. Whenever a restraint occurs, the facility must conduct an internal review. If the youth alleges abuse, a call goes into the state’s child abuse hotline and the accused staffer is transferred.

But former ombudsman Vincent O’Brien, who served in the post for 30 years, recalls haggling with facilities over what constitutes abuse. “Every facility had its own administration and there was a lot of variation in when to call CPS [Child Protective Services].”

Over the years, he says, his job became harder. At one point, the ombudsman’s office had five attorneys and was relatively autonomous. Now it has one, who must answer to the agency’s legal department. Marchetti says visits are conducted “as frequently as required,” but O’Brien recalls visiting some facilities as seldom as once every two years.

For Diana, 17, talking to the ombudsman felt pointless. While confined in the Brentwood Residential Center in Long Island, she says, she was shunned and then transferred after reporting that a popular staffer had assaulted her (he was later charged with sexual abuse and sodomy). “All of those stories just get covered up,” she says. “It’s just a big cover-up.”

Supporters say a Child Advocate would be more independent, and therefore more inviting. The office would be accessible to youth via a toll-free number and have the power to file lawsuits if necessary.

So how likely is the bill to pass? Even with bipartisan support, Clark has her doubts. In 2003, she points out, the governor okayed a commission to oversee foster care group homes but never funded it. Here again, funding could be a sticking point. “I don’t think it’s controversial,” says Clark. “But it’s going to cost some money.”

Names have been changed.
This story has been modified since its publication.