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State Inspections Compel Changes at Abusive Michigan Juvenile Facility

by David M. Reutter

Inspection reports by Michigan’s Department of Human Services (DHS) concerning conditions at the Muskegon County Juvenile Detention Center (MCJDC) found an abusive environment caused by understaffing. On the verge of losing the state license to operate MCJDC, county officials agreed to make reforms.

Located in the northern area of Michigan, MCJDC houses up to 22 middle-school and high-school-aged juveniles. They end up at the facility by order of a family court overseeing criminal charges against them. MCJDC’s superintendent reports to the county administrator rather than to officials associated with the courts, DHS or the sheriff’s office.

After several inspections revealed serious problems at MCJDC, Steve Ragsdale, a child welfare licensing consultant with DHS, began interviewing former MCJDC residents.
Ragsdale issued five reports between December 15, 2009 and June 24, 2010, finding systemic abuse at MCJDC.

Facility staff told Ragsdale that they had no choice but to use “physical management” and long-term seclusion for the safety of both employees and residents. When Ragsdale made an unannounced visit to MCJDC on June 7, 2010, he got a first-hand glimpse of the chaos that reigned at the juvenile facility.

He observed one resident tip over a bookcase. Two others picked up chairs and mimicked throwing them. Ragsdale asked a shift supervisor about the staff’s scheduling while advising her that he was going to cite the facility for being “dangerously understaffed.”

“She was advised that she needed to do whatever was necessary to ensure resident and staff safety, including placing residents in seclusion, if that were the best alternative,” wrote Ragsdale.

“There were not sufficient employees to complete a staffing schedule at the facility. It was necessary to place residents in seclusion in order to insure resident and staff safety,” Ragsdale noted in his final analysis.

Most often, staff used “physical management” on residents when they weren’t imposing long-term seclusion. As one staff member put it, “I did not survive two wars to be taken out by some 13-year-old.”

During his inspections, Ragsdale viewed a video that captured a staff member “dropping” a youth, whose arms were shackled behind his back, “face first from a height of 2 feet.”

After viewing more videos and interviewing staff, Ragsdale learned that “bending a residents’ arm behind his back was referred to by residents and staff as ‘chicken winging,’ which was commonly used as an inappropriate restraint technique by MCJDC employees.

Another improper restraint was “short shackling,” which involves handcuffing a youth’s hands and feet. Another set of shackles then connects the handcuffs and foot shackles. A staff member admitted to Ragsdale that he once short shackled a youth for nearly five weeks.

When MCJDC staff were really frustrated with a youth’s behavior, they used a tool obtained from the Muskegon County Jail – a device called the “AEDEC Prostraint Prisoner Restraint Chair,” which is a collapsible chair on wheels. Straps on the chair secure the wrists, ankles, upper arms, legs and chest. An additional two straps cross through the crotch. PLN has reported several incidents of positional-asphyxiation deaths that have resulted from the use of such restraint chairs.

There was no formal training or training manual for the restraint chair at MCJDC; instruction was passed on verbally. According to the manufacturer, people placed in the chair should never be left unattended and should be unrestrained at least every hour.
Various interviews led Ragsdale to a 12-year-old boy who had been strapped in the chair. Ragsdale was advised by staff that the chair was used because the youth was trying to bite and repeatedly strike staff members.

When interviewing the boy, “it was noted that he had multiple bruises, strap marks, shackle marks, and bite marks on his arms, legs, shoulders, wrists, ankle, chest, and groin area,” wrote Ragsdale. The youth reported that he had been restrained in the chair for nearly two hours, part of which time staff was not in the room, allowing him to bite himself.

County administrator Bonnie Hammersley said she was unaware the restraint chair was being used at MCJDC. “When I heard we had it, I asked for it to be removed immediately,” she said. Commenting on problems at the facility, Hammersley stated, “I attribute it to the change we’re seeing in the youth we’re dealing with. Their needs are greater.”

Ragsdale, however, attributed the problems to understaffing and lack of training. He found that three employees had a “lack of ability” to deal with juveniles at MCJDC, including two who used excessive physical force. While not providing names, county officials fired three MCJDC staff members following the release of Ragsdale’s reports.

Matthew Kaley, 54, MCJDC’s superintendent since 2007 and an assistant superintendent for 12 years prior to that time, resigned in July 2010. He was replaced by Muskegon County’s deputy family court administrator, Paul Wishka.

Wishka said MCJDC had a “strong core of committed employees.” It was a small core, though, with one staff member for every eight residents. On July 13, 2010, the county hired seven more staff members, putting at least one more employee on each shift. Overlap allows up to six staff during peak need times.

An action plan prohibits the use of the restraint chair and short shackling. The plan also calls for “daily review on the use of behavior management rooms; training for staff members in nonabusive physical and psychological intervention; immediately notifying the state if a resident is injured during restraint by staff; conducting an internal investigation of complaints about staff using excessive force; and allocating mental health resources through Muskegon County Community Mental Health” at MCJDC.

The juvenile facility was allowed to continue operating under a provisional license, which permits state officials to make random visits.

Source: Muskegon Chronicle

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