Article re Jailing of the Very Young

February 28, 2010

Santa Clara County Commission Calls for End to Jailing of the Very Young

By Karen de Sá  |  San Jose Mercury News  —

The jailing of several young children last year in Santa Clara County has prompted a call by a court-appointed commission to end the detention of anyone age 12 and younger in the juvenile hall — the strongest reaction to date after public exposure of the incarcerations.

“The Juvenile Justice Commission questions if juvenile hall is ever an appropriate placement for children this young,” states the report being discussed at a public meeting Tuesday. “It has the potential of re-traumatizing a child who is already traumatized.”

The commission — appointed by Superior Court judges to monitor the well-being of children in county custody — says a new detention policy should be created that provides alternatives. Those could include kids 12 and younger being sent home with intensive support or being placed in therapeutic foster homes and residential treatment centers.

Yet ironically, the small boy whose case drove the findings has remained jailed for most of the 17 months since he first entered the hall, just days after his 11th birthday. The boy, whose name is confidential under juvenile law, has left the San Jose detention facility several times for community-based programs. But each time, he has been quickly locked up again because of misbehavior; at a home for emotionally disturbed children he was arrested on suspicion of assault and vandalism after reportedly breaking a window and a dresser in a rage, injuring a staff member.

The boy’s mother has said he just desperately wants to be near her.

Exposure of the boy’s case escalated concerns that were already heightened after another unusual jailing last March. That detention, involving a sibling group of foster children ages 10, 11 and 12, was described as “a mistake” by the presiding juvenile court judge after the trio spent five days in custody.

In both cases, first reported in the Mercury News, charges were brought after reports of child-on-child molestation. There were also stories about all of the children being abused themselves. By most accounts, these are the youngest children in county history to be housed at the 390-bed juvenile hall, which is normally reserved for 13- to 18-year-olds.

Meanwhile, the boy still in custody has deteriorated in the jail-like setting, staff say, given that he suffers from bipolar and attention-deficit disorders, intermittent explosiveness and hyperactivity. County officials would not answer questions about him, citing juvenile confidentiality laws.

But his case is complicated by legal proceedings over his competency. Outside court hearings, he plays “I Spy” with his mom, at times worrying about missing the candy bars passed out in the juvenile hall school during third period.

The county commission now recommends that the jailing of such young children should be avoided in the future. In Santa Clara County, a total of 36 children aged 12 and younger have been detained in the hall between fiscal years 2007 and 2009.

The commission examined the cases of 30 of them, as well as research into the emotional, behavioral and academic harm caused by incarceration. More than half had been in foster care as victims of physical and sexual assault. Twenty-two had a mental health diagnosis, including suicidal tendencies. Eighteen had a parent who was jailed, dead or had disappeared.

Juvenile justice commissioners said the hall poorly serves these children and fails to protect the public. In response, Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Patrick Tondreau told the Mercury News in an e-mail that “the Court is committed to continuing to work to find appropriate alternatives to incarceration,” but he did not outline any specific changes. “We fully support the underlying rationale of juvenile justice that youth are different from adults,” he said.

Tondreau noted that the total number of arrests of children 12 and younger had dropped — from 574 in 2007 to 443 in 2009 — as had the number of children in that age group held in the hall post-arrest. That number went from 12 to 11 in the same time period.

Nonetheless, juvenile justice commissioners note that the facility is still being inappropriately used for the very young, mainly because the county lacks alternatives.

That conclusion troubled directors at the local Bill Wilson Center, who said they have 30 beds available for young children who need alternatives to juvenile hall. “We are very interested in serving this population,” said Deborah Pell, the agency’s director of youth residential services. Pell said between the agency’s shelters, group homes and network of therapeutic foster homes — which provide more intensive services and support than typical foster homes — most of the children could be safely accommodated. Probation officers make recommendations to judges about where juveniles should be placed. Bill Wilson Center directors say perhaps those officers are not aware there is an agency that can house them.

For the boy who remains in custody into his second year, alternatives tried have included a group home in Ukiah which later shut down after a lengthy history of health and safety violations.

Speaking in general and not about this specific case, Youth Law Center attorney Sue Burrell said, “In these kinds of situations, the system often lays the blame on the child, and everybody shakes their heads and says, ‘Oh, it’s a shame this kid has failed in so many placements.’ ” That could be avoided, she added, if the child was placed with the appropriate treatment and services from the start.

“Our experience has been that once these little kids are locked up, everyone says they don’t belong in juvenile hall,” she said. “But the systems are not mobilized to prevent this from happening in the first place — or to get the kids out once it happens.”

Contact Karen de Sá at 408-920-5781.