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Conditions at New York Juvenile Facilities Deficient; State and Federal Officials Settle Lawsuit

On July 14, 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the State of New York settled a three-year investigation into conditions of confinement at four New York juvenile facilities.

The DOJ began investigating conditions of confinement at the Finger Lakes Residential Center and Lansing Residential Center in Lansing, NY, and the Tryon Residential Center and Tryon Girls Center in Johnstown, NY on December 17, 2007.

DOJ investigators conducted four site visits between June and November 2008. Then-Governor David Patterson responded to the investigation in September 2008 by convening a task force charged with taking independent steps to remedy deficiencies at the four facilities.

On August 14, 2009 the DOJ issued a findings letter, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1997(a)(1), describing numerous systemic violations.

Use of Force and Restraints

“Staff at the four facilities consistently used a high degree of force to gain control in nearly every type of situation,” the investigators wrote. “Anything from sneaking an extra cookie to initiating a fistfight may result in a full prone restraint with handcuffs. This one-size-fits-all control approach has not surprisingly led to an alarming number of serious injuries to youth, including concussions, broken or knocked-out teeth, and spiral fractures.” Staff interviews “revealed that they do not believe that they have options to respond to youth’s behaviors,” so they “consistently respond to what appear to be, at least initially, minor incidents with a high degree of force.”

Investigators also found that “restraints are used frequently and result in a high number of injuries.” At Lansing, for example, restraints were used 698 times in 2007 – an average of 58 restraints per month. That year, 123 youth suffered restraint-related injuries including bruises, concussions, knocked out teeth, fractures and separated shoulders.

Tryon staff also employed an intentionally harmful type of restraint known as the “hook and trip,” in which the youth’s arms are restrained behind the back and staff then kick “the youth’s legs so they fall to the floor face first.”

The report further found that many use-of-force investigations “were inadequate, both by agency and generally accepted professional standards.” Some investigations were superficial and failed to include relevant evidence while others “were not conducted by detached investigators, which calls their reliability into question.”

“Contrary to generally accepted professional standards,” even when investigations occurred, management was found to “take no action, impose actions that are inconsistent with the seriousness of the violation, or fail to impose action in a timely manner.”

Inadequate Mental Health Care

Investigators determined that mental health care at the facilities “substantially departs from generally accepted professional standards.” Specifically, investigators found: “1) inadequate behavioral management has led to an over-reliance on restraints and other forms of punishment to control youth’s behaviors; 2) evaluation and diagnoses are inadequate; 3) the facility follows poor medication administration; 4) treatment planning is inadequate; and 5) substance abuse treatment is insufficient.”

Custodial Sexual Abuse

Investigators reviewed past incidents of custodial sexual misconduct, but found “no current systemic constitutional deficiencies in this area.” Rather, they concluded that “in the wake of custodial sexual misconduct charges,” staff had “taken multiple steps, including ... installing video cameras, increased staff accountability, and additional training” to protect youth from sexual abuse.

State Quickly Settles

The federal investigators concluded their August 14, 2009 findings letter with a warning to state officials that failure to reach a resolution of the deficiencies within 49 days could result in litigation under 42 U.S.C. § 1997b(a)(1) to correct the problems identified at the juvenile facilities.

Almost a year later, on July 14, 2010, state and federal officials signed a 32-page settlement agreement that detailed comprehensive provisions for protection from harm, use of restraints, use of force, reporting and investigating incidents, mental health care, use of psychotropic medications, training, quality assurance and improvements to policies, procedures and practices.

The settlement requires implementation of all necessary reforms within 23 months of the effective date of the agreement. It also calls for routine compliance reviews to be conducted by a monitoring team every six months. The terms of the agreement allow for judicial enforcement if the state fails to substantially comply with its obligations. On the other hand, “the Agreement will terminate in its entirety when the United States certifies that the State is in substantial compliance with all provisions of this Agreement for twelve (12) consecutive months.”

The settlement was filed on July 14, 2010 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, simultaneously with a Complaint, Joint Motion to Enter Settlement Agreement and proposed Order Entering Settlement Agreement. The court approved the settlement 5 days later.

“It is New York’s fundamental responsibility to protect juveniles in its custody from harm and to uphold their constitutional rights,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “We have worked cooperatively with New York officials to craft an agreement to ensure that the constitutional rights of juveniles at the four facilities are protected, and we commend New York ... for their willingness to work aggressively to remedy these problems.” See: United States v. State of New York, U.S.D.C. (N.D. NY), Case No. 1:10-cv-00858-FJS-DRH.

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Related legal case

United States v. State of New York