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Fed gov’t sues Ohio juvenile system

Tom Jackson • Apr 13, 2014 at 8:40 AM

The U.S. Department of Justice and Ohio officials have reached an agreement that will reduce the amount of time spent in isolation by young people in state juvenile correctional facilities.

The agreement was reached last week, and details are now being hammered out, said Kim Parsell, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Youth Services.

Last month, federal officials filed a lawsuit against Gov. John Kasich, the Ohio Department of Youth Services, department head Harvey Reed and four juvenile correctional facilities claiming youths are being held in seclusion for significant periods of time at the four locations.

“Numerous national studies have established that seclusion of youth with mental health disorders even for short periods of time can severely harm youth,” states the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for Ohio’s Southern District.

One youth in a facility was put in seclusion for 19 days, while another was put in seclusion for 21 days, the lawsuit says.

It asks the court to end the practice of putting youths in seclusion for long periods of time and to provide better mental health treatment.

The lawsuit named four state juvenile correctional facilities: Indian River, Cuyahoga Hills, Circleville and Scioto. Scioto is scheduled to close on May 3.

Those are facilities where youth from Erie County are sent, said Robert DeLamatre, who has been Erie County’s juvenile court judge since 2001.

DeLamatre said the number of youth in state juvenile correctional facilities has declined dramatically, from about 2,300 when he took office, to about 500 today. There’s a variety of reasons for that decline, he said.

Ongoing litigation over the state system probably made some judges more reluctant to send youth into the state system, DeLamatre said.    “Certainly the lawsuit brought a spotlight on conditions, and things in the department that may be a little invisible to a judge back in your home county. We don’t know on a day to day business how that youth is being treated,” the judge said.

In addition, the state has done a good job of funding juvenile correctional facilities in high-volume counties such as Cuyahoga County, lessening the reliance on the state system, he said.

Locally, the opening of Erie County’s Juvenile Detention Center in 2003 has often provided an alternative to sending youths into the state system, DeLamatre said.

“It gave me control over day to day operations, so I can effectuate some of the programming” he said.

DeLamatre said when youth return to his courtroom from the state system, he sometimes asks how they were treated.

“Seclusion wasn’t something that was ever mentioned” he said.

Last week, the Department of Justice dropped its request for a temporary restraining order. An order reflecting the terms agreed upon by the two sides will be entered by the court in the next two weeks, said Frances Russ, a spokeswoman for Youth Services.

“It’s important to understand that more than half of all youth in juvenile correctional facilities have mental health needs, and addressing these needs is absolutely critical in our work of rehabilitating youth. This is why we provide youth with individualized, evidence-based behavioral health services, education, recreation, and more,” Russ said in a statement sent to the Register.

“We have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for youth and staff, and seclusion is used as a last resort to maintain safety and order so that we can help youth change their lives. Even when we do have to use seclusion, we continue to offer treatment and programming to youth,” she said.

Parsell said the agreement will reduce the use of seclusion.

The lawsuit cited a study of seclusion in the system carried out by Dr. Kelly Dedel, a psychologist from Portland, Ore., who is the lead monitor for Ohio’s youth correctional system.

Dedel, reached by phone, said a confidentiality clause in her contract doesn’t allow her to comment.

DeLamatre said sending a local youth into the state system is considered a last resort.

“That is the last kind of step, the last tool that we have in the juvenile system. That means that you are pretty well done with the youth — there are not too many services you can use for them” he said.

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