When teenagers appear in Family Court for petty crimes, judges have a useful option: sending the kids to group homes, a setting where teens can be kept under supervision while getting personal attention, counseling, even field trips. But the city’s juvenile justice department has repeatedly violated these orders. Instead, some kids–who may be as young as 11–are being sent to maximum-security jails.
In two separate cases last month, two different Family Court judges–Paul Grosvenor in Brooklyn and Fran Lubow in Queens–held the city’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) in contempt for the practice. In each case, girls who were supposed to go to DJJ group homes wound up in jail.
The Brooklyn case involves Jamie, a 15-year-old girl who was in Family Court for truancy. She was already on probation for riding in a stolen car, so Judge Grosvenor ordered that she be sent to a group home. At her lawyer’s request, the judge also ordered that DJJ provide the emotionally fragile girl with immediate counseling and make sure that she had access to regular visits with her mother.
Instead, was taken to Crossroads, a locked facility in East New York. At Crossroads, she was mixed in with kids who had committed violent crimes. She had to sleep on the floor, received no counseling, and was allowed only a few five-minute phone calls to her mother.
On her first night there, she had an asthma attack. Jamie says that when she informed the staff of her difficulties, she was told, “Get used to it. This is jail,” and then locked her in her room. She spent a total of four nights at Crossroads.
City officials say they had no choice. “It’s simply a question of space,” said Deborah Seidenberg, an attorney with the Office of Corporation Counsel. At present, DJJ has a total of 115 group home slots. Only 24 are for girls. The shortage became acute last summer, when three group homes were closed for financial irregularities.
But lawyers for the girls say the city is legally obligated to make the space. “It is not a legal excuse to say they don’t have enough room,” said Nancy Rosenbloom of the Legal Aid Society, which filed suit over the issue last June. According to Rosenbloom, hundreds of kids have recently been held in jail only because there was no room in group homes. Although three new homes opened since then, and three more are in the works, Legal Aid lawyers say this will not be enough.
Meanwhile, Legal Aid has brought contempt proceedings against DJJ five times in the last year for putting kids in jail despite court orders for group homes. So far, only LeBow and Grosvenor have found the city in contempt. Neither judge has yet decided how much to impose in fines, although attorneys asked for the maximum: $250 for each day spent in jail.
Jamie also has an opinion about what should happen to those who violated her judge’s order. “They should be punished for it,” she said. “The same way we get punished for doing a crime, they should be punished.”