juvenile justice

Teens Sue to Exit Detention Centers As Coronavirus Closes In

The Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, March 20, 2020.
The Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, March 20, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Teens held in city juvenile detention facilities filed suit against the city’s child welfare chief Wednesday, seeking immediate release.

The suit filed by the Legal Aid Society in Manhattan Supreme Court against Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner David Hansell calls for the immediate release of at least 10 young people, ages 13 to 17, being held as juvenile delinquents.

Lawyers contend that social isolation measures needed to stop the spread of the virus are “effectively impossible in juvenile detention centers,” and charged that holding them in such facilities “constitutes deliberate indifference to the risk of serious medical harm.”

“These youth are extremely vulnerable to infection by the virus and to its potentially devastating consequences,” the legal filing asserts.

The suit also cites the “significant emotional harm” caused by an end to visits by family members to detained teens.

ACS referred questions to the city Law Department. “We’ll have to review the particulars of the lawsuit and respond accordingly. Health and safety is a priority of the city at this time,” said department spokesperson Nick Paolucci.

The lawsuit cites reporting by THE CITY that revealed three staffers working with youth in the city’s juvenile centers, including Crossroads in Brooklyn and Horizon in The Bronx, have tested positive for COVID-19.

“​Because jails, prisons, and ​other detention centers are not designed to manage infectious disease, we anticipate COVID-19 will spread rapidly and infect many more individuals in the coming days,” said Dawne Mitchell, attorney-in-charge of the Juvenile Defense Practice at the Legal Aid Society, in an emailed statement.

Rikers Releases

Teenagers have remained detained in secure juvenile detention facilities even as the city Department of Correction begins to release select adults from city jails.

On Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that 75 individuals with health issues and serving on low-level charges had been released from adult jails, while an additional 200 were slated for review Wednesday for potential discharge.

As of Tuesday morning, 30 staff members and 54 people incarcerated at New York City jails had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Department of Correction. Two were released that day.

The Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, March 20, 2020.
The Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, March 20, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The releases followed intense pressure by advocates as well as a tweeted warning by the city’s own top doctor on Rikers Island that “a storm is coming.”

On Monday, de Blasio said his administration is evaluating the situation at juvenile facilities “through a health lens” — but also stated, “I don’t think it is the same level of challenge as what we’re facing with the adult facilities.”

He added: “I think it’s a very, very different dynamic immediately when you’re talking about a youth facility.”

Infection ‘Breeding Grounds’

Citywide coronavirus infection figures show that while teenagers are unlikely to die from COVID-19, infections have spread among some minors.

Some 384 minors in the city have already been hospitalized due to coronavirus. Studies have suggested juvenile detention centers already are home to some of the most medically vulnerable youth in the U.S.

Recent state data shows that over half of all admissions to detention for juvenile delinquents were based on a non-violent felony or misdemeanor, and stays in detention are often fleeting.

This leads to “constant turnover of detained youth and staff, making them breeding grounds for infection and transmission of COVID-19,” according to the lawsuit.

Youth advocates call the situation untenable.

“Many of these kids are going to go home in a very short order already,” said Vincent Schiraldi, a former city probation commissioner and co-chair of a national group calling for the release of children from detention.

“Our instinct as a country is to think of these conditions issues as mollycoddling criminals, and to sort of sneer at them. That’s a bad instinct right now. That’s not a medically indicated instinct. What do doctors think’s going to happen?”

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