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As Juvenile Facilities Report More Cases, Advocates Express Unique Concerns for Youth

Taijuan Moorman Taijuan Moorman As Juvenile Facilities Report More Cases, Advocates Express Unique Concerns for YouthPhoto via Franklin County Public Facilities Management.
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Last week, it was reported by multiple local media outlets that at least 14 youth and 27 staff members — half of the current staff — at the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center have tested positive for COVID-19.

The facility last reported on Wednesday, May 6, 25 youth and 30 staff members have tested positive.

The evolving situation in the state’s juvenile facilities raises a flag for advocates who, while seeing data from the Department of Youth Services on how many kids are being tested and quarantined, have no idea how many youth are being released and what rationale is being used to do so.

That lack of transparency is worrisome for advocates.

What little information that has been given out from the Department of Youth Services is on a state level. Kenza Kamal, policy director for the Juvenile Justice Coalition, says even less information is coming out of the local juvenile facilities.

“The way that we’re finding out what’s happening is either by word of mouth or by reporting,” she says. “So, for example, we’ve heard in Northeast Ohio that apparently some group homes are being closed and kids are being sent to incarceration instead.”

The response juvenile facilities are taking is to leave kids in lockup and isolate them, says Kamal.

“Inside prison and jails, social distancing is just solitary confinement,” she says. “Just throwing kids in separate cells and leaving them in there for long amounts of hours as a way to keep them apart from other kids is not actually a solution to the problem.”

The Franklin County Court of Clerks has not responded to requests for comment.

Solitary confinement can cause extreme mental, physical and developmental harm for adults. So for children, who are more susceptible to irrecoverable traumas, the risks are heightened. And youth with disabilities or histories of abuse, who are prevalent in the juvenile justice system, can be harmed even further.

It also bears mentioning that the issues that children are facing as a result of the pandemic on the outside are the same as the inside.

Children in the general population are having their education interrupted, and parents fear their children will fall behind because of it. Imagine, then, a population of youth who may not be afforded the same access to technology and online learning platforms. Youth who don’t have the support of their parents to continue their education from home.

And there’s also the issue of funding. Detained youth at the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Facility are provided education through a contract with Columbus City Schools, which like many other public school districts will see budget cuts for this fiscal year.

“They were hardly receiving adequate school to begin with. And now their schooling is even worse, if there is any at all,” says Kamal. “And if it’s part of a child’s sentence to complete programming, then what does this lack of schooling do to their ability to even be released; to their permanent record?”

On the outside, people are struggling with addiction and the sudden lack of in-person support systems they have come to rely on. Add onto that the inability to get out and take a walk, get fresh air or even see daylight, and the mental health outcomes worsen.

“Some places are doing some video visitation. But they are totally cut off from their support systems in the way that kids on the outside have access to,” says Kamal.

Aramis Sundiata, executive director for JJC, points to Cuyahoga County as a part of the state where families, who can no longer provide support for their children in-person, have expressed a lot of concern. Over seven staff members and at least 18 youth have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility, as of Wednesday, May 6.

“Families are saying to us they’re terrified. They’re afraid because we know now that faculty and staff are bringing in the virus and their children are stuck,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking to hear from parents — they’re powerlessness to just do the most parental thing – to protect their child.”

In a letter sent to Governor Mike DeWine in mid-March, JJC — along with Policy Matters Ohio and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio — recommended ways to reduce the population in juvenile facilities and mitigation tactics while youth await release.

Now that the situation in juvenile facilities has worsened, the lack of action, transparency, data and information is even more concerning. What were simply long-term goals of the organization are now the emergency response they’re calling for in juvenile facilities.

“We are wasting millions of dollars on incarcerating and criminalizing kids rather than spending on all these things would have made kids healthier and better off in a pandemic,” says Kamal. “[Reinvest] it into the things that actually keep kids and families safe, which is health care and housing and education.”

“I think all of those things were true before the pandemic and they continue to be true,” she says.

Sundiata says the mistakes young people make shouldn’t mean placing them in a facility where there is no growth or development, and it shouldn’t mean they’re put in a situation where they can become seriously ill. As the pandemic continues, that has been made abundantly clear.

“[It’s] clear that the majority of people being hit by this pandemic are confined in an institution where they can not escape. It’s just not right,” says Sundiata. “Free our youth, period. And we’ll continue sitting on that on that principle as we go forward.”

For more information, visit jjohio.org.

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