Concern Over ACS Shutdown of Oversight Panel

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Then-ACS chief Ronald Richter formed the Juvenile Justice Oversight Board in 2013

Then-ACS chief Ronald Richter formed the Juvenile Justice Oversight Board in 2013

Six members of a city oversight board charged in 2013 with investigating conditions faced by youth inside the city’s secure and non-secure juvenile detention facilities say the group was completely inactive until ACS Commissioner Gladys Carrión announced it would now serve merely as an advisory board. They complain that the group only met once, issued no reports, visited no facilities and had no real power.

One leading advocate in the field recently resigned from the board after Carrión announced in a private meeting with members in October that it will now be an advisory board bound by a non-disclosure agreement.

The Bloomberg administration hindered the board’s power to investigate conditions, according to the six board members, who voiced their concerns in several interviews. Their criticism comes as Carrión launches new reforms to the city’s juvenile detention system after a state report issued in 2012 found widespread use of excessive force and a failure to meet the mental health needs of its residents.

Carrión dissolved the Juvenile Justice Oversight Board in December, announcing at a City Council hearing with the Committee of Juvenile Justice that instead it will become an advisory panel reporting directly to her. She said the city’s juvenile justice system is already under scrutiny and oversight by the state, City Council and the agency’s own network of ombudsmen who are charged with advocating for resident and staff needs.

“We have state and city ombudsmen and we can’t be stepping over each other,” she said.

Too much oversight?

Since 2010 when ACS merged with the Department of Juvenile Justice, it has been charged with overseeing a network of 15 secure and non-secure juvenile detention facilities which hold 179 youth facing charges of juvenile delinquency. As part of its Close-to-Home initiative it also holds 198 youth serving a sentence in its 30 non-secure placement facilities, according to ACS statistics from November 2014. In March 2015, the agency will launch its limited secure placement program which will hold detained youth at six other facilities in the city.

These facilities fall under multiple layers of state and city oversight, explained the Commissioner to the Council. The state’s Office of Children and Family Services has staff dedicated to overseeing the implementation of laws and regulations who also make quarterly inspections of the facilities. The city’s ombudsmen program advocates for youth concerns, investigates complaints and is supposed to ensure they understand their rights to submit grievances. The city comptroller’s office, the office of the ACS inspector general, the district attorney’s office as well as the City Council also have the authority to investigate conditions.

The Commissioner “determined that the welfare of justice-involved young people will be best served by a Board that will review and advise on the entire spectrum of the juvenile justice in New York City, including alternatives to placement, respite care, secure and non-secure detention and non-secure and limited secure placement,” wrote Chris McKniff, press secretary at ACS, in an emailed statement to City Limits.

The board will now consist of up to 15 members charged with analyzing agency data, reviewing services offered in agency and contractor facilities and recommending policy and program changes. The advisory board will meet quarterly under a strict nondisclosure agreement to keep information confidential because the board might have access to very “child-specific information,” the commissioner told the Council. It will issue an annual public report on the system’s challenges and accomplishments.

A board is born

These new responsibilities are a stark contrast to the original privileges granted to the oversight board. Then-ACS Commissioner Ronald Richter announced the expansion of an earlier group of community advocates charged with some oversight abilities as the Juvenile Justice Oversight Board in 2012 to ease public anxiety about abuses within the system. The board would visit facilities to assess the “quality and adequacy of services, monitor operational issues of concern, analyze data on key system indicators, and meet with agency officials to discuss findings, recommendations, and resolutions,” according to a call for board member applications released in 2012 by the agency.

“I thought it was important that there be a group of knowledgeable concerned individuals who would have access to our programs and the commissioner to talk about how the system was functioning in areas where it was doing well and where the system needed to address challenges by staff or kids or whoever,” said Richter, who is now a family court judge in Manhattan, in an interview this November.

Richter said the vision began with his own evaluation visits to the facilities during his time as commissioner. The residents talked to him about smaller issues like the type of lotion offered, the aging gym equipment and the small portions of food. The residents weren’t likely to talk with him directly about getting beaten up by other residents or staff, which is where Richter saw that a separate board might be able to help.

“You don’t need an oversight board to include things in the mayor’s management report about school attendance, graduation rates, recidivism, instances of injury, AWOLS [absent without leave],” he said. “Part of the value of it was to ease people’s anxiety about what’s happening with these kids and the staff, where you can knock on the door and come in and see.”

Originally, the board was responsible for advocating for residents in secure and nonsecure facilities and monitoring their living conditions. According to a draft summary of the board’s policy issued in January of 2013, members would examine facility operations and resident care plans by both ACS and contractors. They were allowed to investigate complaints by youth, parents, ACS staff and contract workers; visit facilities and assess their level of care; review and analyze data; meet with agency officials to offer recommendations and policy reforms and; finally, to issue a report every year “or more frequently, as necessary,” according to the draft summary.

Little progress made

But that promise went unfulfilled. Since the board was established in 2013, the members only met once, and didn’t visit any facilities or receive or investigate any complaints. They also didn’t issue any reports or send any recommendations to the agency, according to the six board members. Their only meeting as an oversight board was held in May with Carrión, where she first mentioned her idea to make the board a confidential advisory board.

“If we can’t speak out because we’ve signed a confidentiality agreement and we’re not being asked to do anything, then what’s the point?” says Jane Spinak, a professor at Columbia Law School who resigned from the board after she learned it would no longer be an oversight board. “I thought we were going to be given some real oversight responsibility and be a voice for young people in the system or maybe be some eyes and ears in the system, point out issues, be a liaison between young people and the system. But so far we’ve been nothing.”

Jeannette Bocanegra, another member and parent organizer with Community Connections for Youth, a Bronx-based alternative to detention program for youth, says, “I expected to just go inside these facilities and talk to young people. I haven’t been able to do any of it.”

Other board members like Victoria Sammartino, executive director of VoicesUnbroken, a non-profit arts organization that works with youth in detention, say that ACS’s hierarchy of oversight “is a lot of people policing themselves.”

Chino Hardin, a board member and organizer with the Nu Leadership, says he believes in Carrión’s leadership but fears “the board will be used as a token” in the agency.

Reverend Annie Bovian, another member of the board says, “I understand Commissioner Carrión may feel the JJOB is a little much but I don’t think so. When you’re talking about lives, there is never a little too much.”

Oversight over the years

The dissolution of the Juvenile Justice Oversight Board is the latest twist in the city’s decades-long effort to achieve effective oversight of the juvenile justice system. The city’s first oversight board came after Martarella v. Kelley, a 1972 lawsuit brought against the city by residents in secure detention, which established an Ombudsman Review Board that would act on behalf of detainees’ grievances.

That board was disbanded in 2008 by the former Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Neil Hernandez after he claimed that the conditions laid out in the lawsuit were no longer an issue in the city’s secure detention system.

Instead Hernandez created a Resident Advocacy Program to collect grievances from residents to share with facility directors and the commissioner. But board members of the Resident Advocacy Program were only given access to written grievances from youth and city reports on conditions; they weren’t allowed to visit the facilities or interview youth themselves.

That changed when Richter announced the creation of the Juvenile Justice Oversight Board in 2012 and appointed members in 2013.

“I still very much feel that there is a need particularly in light of what l heard about at Rikers Island to have oversight of agencies that are responsible for caring for children,” says Alexandra Cox, an assistant professor in sociology at SUNY-Paltz who was asked to leave the board last year because she is not a New York City resident. “There are ways that young people experience softer elements of incarceration like boredom that can be experienced as quite painful. So even if someone they speak with presents themselves as an advocate, they are still a person that is part of an agency that is responsible for detaining them.”

Jose, 15, in June spent one week at Horizon Juvenile Center, a secure detention facility in the Bronx, as he was awaiting trial on an assault charge. In that week, he remembers only being able to go outside once for 45 minutes.

“I was so bored. I was going crazy,” says Jose, whose last name is being withheld because he is a minor. “So I just tried to sleep all day or I would just sit in the hall. It felt like jail.”

Isaac Murphy, 17, still suffers the consequences of being held in solitary confinement for three days as punishment for severely injuring another resident in a fight at Crossroads Juvenile Center in 2012, another secure detention facility in Brooklyn. He says that sometimes he becomes anxious in small or crowded spaces.

“That place is no place to be,” he says. “It doesn’t help you. It just makes you worse.”

Malik spent a week at Horizon this year where he got into several fights with other residents. In one fight, staff physically restrained Malik, who is 15, and slapped a pair of handcuffs on his wrists to stop one brawl. The handcuffs cut his left forearm. Four months later he still has a scar.

Goal: Avoiding tragedies

Gabrielle Horowitz-Prisco, director of the juvenile justice project at the Correctional Association, a criminal justice advocacy group, testified at the recent City Council hearing. She acknowledged that ACS under Carrión has made reforms to secure and non-secure juvenile detention but argued that the use of restraints still demonstrates a need for external oversight.

“Children in residential facilities are, by design, isolated from the public and inherently at risk of abuse, and their parents, communities, and the general public have a right and obligation to know what is happening behind facility walls so they can respond to concerns and support best practices,” wrote Horowitz-Prisco in an emailed statement to City Limits.

“There are currently many city and state agencies with some hand in oversight, yet we know that concerns such as the frequent use of restraints in detention persist. Vigorous and well-resourced external oversight and robust public transparency help create the checks and balances central to best practices and public safety,” she added.

City Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Queens) who sits on the Committee for Juvenile Justice is currently drafting a bill with local advocates that would create an independently funded external oversight body for the city’s juvenile justice system. This new entity would have a right to make unannounced visits to facilities, subpoena information and publicly report that information. The bill will be released publicly in the next few months.

“This is a very vulnerable population,” says Lancman. “It requires a regular oversight mechanism to make sure that potential problems are nipped in the bud and not addressed only after there are tragedies that find their way to front page of the newspapers.”

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