Serious problems within New York State's juvenile justice system is not a new phenomenon, but they have hit close to home in recent months with an incident at the Finger Lakes Residential Center in Lansing.
Reports have filtered out about a riot at the Finger Lakes Residential Center on June 17. When asked about the reports, the state Office of Children and Family Services, the state agency that oversees the FLRC, admitted that a "disturbance" had occurred at the juvenile justice facility on that date.
Around 6:15 p.m. someone at the facility called 911, stating that staff had "lost control" of the facility. State police admitted being called from the facility but declined to provide further details. A Freedom Of Information Law request for information was denied by the State Police; a similar FOIL request to Tompkins County Dispatch/911 interim director Brian Wilbur was referred to County Attorney Johnathan Wood, who also has not responded.
Susan Steele, Assistant Director of Communications for OCFS, told the Ithaca Times: "Three staff members were injured, none seriously. Police were called and assisted. No arrests were made."
Staff at FLRC, however, describe the incident as a "full-blown riot" and claim that multiple staff were hurt. This is the second time in a year that a riot or an uprising by the kids occurred at FLRC. The center, which began accepting kids in 1993, has been investigated in the past for possible abuse of the kids by staff. Formerly known as the Lou Gossett Jr. Residential Center, it receives kids 14-21 years of age who are sent to the facility by the family court system for crimes that, if they were adults, would merit prison time. Kids leave the facility either by finishing their sentences, or by "aging out" when they turn 21. If they are serving a sentence past their 21st birthday they transfer into the state prison system.
Sea Change in Attitudes
Employees at the facility and another justice facility for youth, Austin MacCormick Secure Center in Brooktondale, allege that violence has become an every day occurrence and neither they nor the kids feel safe any more. With a sea change in the attitudes of the top administrators of the OCFS, they say that policies which were meant to prevent staff from abusing kids are now giving the kids a sense of being beyond punishment.
"If you think violence and confrontation are new to these kids, you're wrong," said a former MacCormick employee, "John," who requested their name be withheld.
Permanently injured by an inmate who had been transferred from FLRC, "John" said that the environment at MacCormick and FLRC was unsafe for both the kids and the staff. Staff at both FLRC and MacCormick routinely work double shifts and overtime, as often as two or three times a week.
An internal NYS investigation found OCFS the most dangerous agency in the state to work for, and staff are commonly out for months or years on worker's compensation because of injuries sustained at work. If someone can't work a shift and no one has volunteered to work it for them, state policy mandates that staff already in the facility must stay or lose their jobs. Staff who fear for their safety, or question their own ability to function without adequate sleep or time off, have no choice but to quit. OCFS staff sign a condition of employment when they accept the job, which states they will be fired for talking about their jobs to the media.
A report on staff safety by 25th Assembly District's Rory Blancman found a 42-percent rise in OCFS staffers' worker's compensation claims from 2007-2009. Data from the OCFS shows 138 reported assaults on staff in 2010, up from 133 a year earlier.
"Your head had better be on a pivot when you go in," said a 21-year employee of OCFS, Michael Weissman, now out on workman's comp due to injuries he sustained working at the Tryon Residential Center. "I used to enjoy going to work, but now two or three (kids) will jump a staff at once. It's constant."
Local Assemblyperson Barbara Lifton said she tries to stay on top of the situation and is sometimes contacted by staff.
"When I hear stuff like this I call my contacts in OCFS and let then know my concerns," she said.
Lifton said a few years ago she had heard a lot from staff who were concerned that the kids were not being treated right and at that time she called the state Inspector General herself.
"It gets out of balance sometimes," she said. "The IG told me, sometimes the adults are too dominant and sometimes the kids are running things. It may be that that (the kids running things) is what's happening now. I know that staff is feeling a good deal of pressure."
In testimony before a 2010 Republican Task Force on safety in the facilities, Sharon Merulla, listed as a vocational instructor at FLRC, said the administrative order to do fewer restraints actually resulted in an increase in restraints, because the youths raised the level of violent behavior when they realized there were no consequences for it.
Staff who spoke to the Ithaca Times for purposes of this article asked that their names not be used. Darcy Wells, spokesperson for Public Employees Federation, commented, "They all feel the same way about stepping forward with a target on their back." Lifton said that staff know they can talk to her and she will not breach their confidentiality.
Crusading Commissioner's Policies Blamed
Staff claim that the riot is just the latest event in a pattern of escalating violence in OCFS facilities under the leadership of OCFS Commissioner Gladys Carrion. Carrion, appointed by Governor Spitzer in 2007, was formerly a director of the United Way.
Carrion instituted a number of reforms, including reducing causes for use of force by staff to three, (assault on staff, assault on another resident, and going AWOL). She ended the practice of inmates having to walk silently, single file, while moving from one area of the facility to another, and installed video cameras in public areas (common rooms, offices, etcetera; cameras in bedrooms and bathrooms are not allowed). She personally petitioned family court judges to stop sending youth to the facilities. Carrion also implemented a policy of closing the facilities. On June 8, OCFS announced plans to downsize the number of beds at FLRC, from 56 currently to 26. Statewide, the closures are aimed at removing 377 beds from the system and are touted to save the state $26 million.
Carrion argued that since most of the youth therein are minority kids from downstate, they would be better cared for and have less recidivism in their own communities.
"We don't incarcerate people in this country for living in bad environments or for living in communities with gang activities," said Carrion in an Aug. 4, 2010 interview with the Village Voice. "Should we incarcerate them forever until their communities improve? I am not running the Economic Development Agency for upstate New York. I will no longer export black and brown kids to finance the upstate economy."
(Note: A new facility in Taberg, near Rome, NY, has recently been opened.)
However, State Sen. Mike Nozzolio, who along with fellow senators Catharine Young, Hugh Farley, and George Maziarz, has been asking for Carrion's resignation, took issue with her claim about the reasons for the facilities' placement upstate.
Speaking with the Ithaca Times on July 29, Nozzolio said, "That comment's a total insult to the employees that work there... We never intended these facilities to grow jobs. Their purpose is to keep the public safe, and hopefully rehabilitate the youth in them. I have no quarrel with policies that reduce the distance between youth and their families, but most of these facilities were placed in non-metropolitan areas because the offenders needed a different environment."
"There's been an attitudinal change focusing on their youth," he added. "That ignores the fact that many of them are very serious violent offenders who happen to be young. These are not summer camps. Even though the population in the centers has been reduced significantly, violence against staff has gone up. These facilities have become tinderboxes, with staff having their hands completely tied. The overriding concern we have is that the commissioner's policies send a message to the kids that they will not be held accountable."
An Atmosphere of Lawlessness
In March, Eileen Carpenter, of the New York State Commission on Corrections, released a video on YouTube exhibiting just how bad it is in OCFS facilities. The video is culled from thousands of hours of videotape caught by the cameras in four OCFS centers, including MacCormick.
"I did not pull the worst," said Carpenter, who was authorized to document conditions within the facilities by the Inspector General. Carpenter went public with the video months after she submitted it to the IG, OCFS, the Governor's office, and the Department of Corrections, because, she said, they declined to act on it.
The video shows youth making planned gang assaults on staff and other youth. In one clip, youth on the living unit rip the phone out of the wall and throw tables and chairs around in preparation for a fight with staff, who are about to tell them to go to bed. In the brawl that ensues, a female staff member is knocked down and injured and the one kid that had stayed out of the fight comes from his room to assist her; a video from the following day shows the same kid being attacked by the other kids while their leader looks on.
"This is a daily occurrence in these facilities," said Carpenter. "Residents who do not join these unruly gangs fear for their safety... Everyone working within the system has been forced to accept a philosophy which empowers outlaw residents and disempowers staff."
"I interviewed residents that begged me to help them, and they were the ones in control," she added in the press conference. "One was the head of a gang who had been in the facility three years earlier. He said, ‘I run stuff now, the staff don't run stuff. I would have much preferred to be here three years ago when it was a much safer environment.' This is an eighteen-year-old talking to me."
In the videos, the kids routinely act in concert against staff, with little discussion between them and obvious moves to prepare the staging area for an assault or fight.
"The real story in this whole thing is the mentality from the top down that the kids can do no wrong," said Weissman. "If a kid gets upset, we're to leave the area. If a kid punches at you, you block it, step back, and go ‘Stop.'"
Only when a kid is about to hurt someone can physical restraint be used. Then, instead of the old approach, of coming from the back and pinning the kids' arms, and "possibly taking them down to the floor," Weissman describes the new techniques as requiring two staff to approach, one from either side, face-to-face with the youth.
"If you could ever get anyone to show you the new restraint technique, you wouldn't believe it. We were training in it and the staff were getting hurt doing the training," said Weissman. "You put your hip behind the hip of the resident, and your inside arm is in their armpit, your outside arm has their wrist. It's not safe."
For instance, by approaching from behind, staff can keep their heads ducked and away to protect themselves from being head butted. Being spit upon or bitten are also more easily avoided from behind.
Alvin Lollie, who was hired last year to turn around the Finger Lakes Residential Center, told Marion McCune of WCNY last December that it was his job to implement a new culture in the center, called Sanctuary.
"Don't see these kids as bad, see these kids as injured," Lollie said he instructs his staff.
Lollie and all his staff are depicted wearing a 'safety plan' on the flip side of their ID cards. The plan lists three things they should do if they become upset on the job. Lollie's said, 1) close my door, meditate 'ommmm ...' 2) Talk to Kids 3) Take a walk.
Lollie has been replaced by F. Sowersby, who declined to be interviewed for this story. Sowersby referred inquiries to Susan Steele, the public relations representative of OCFS in Albany.
Meanwhile, Carpenter's videos, which are culled from the thousands of surveillance cameras taking videos daily and sent to the central office of OCFS, show staff trying to restrain "children" many of whom are as big as themselves. In one video, one of the kids distracts a staff member, drawing him out of the area, so that another can assault a kid watching TV. The victim, who was punched rapidly in the head six times, lost consciousness and was taken to the hospital.
While "prone restraint," which involves the staff putting the kid face down on the floor and holding him or her there, is now officially prohibited, the videos show staff using it on a regular basis. Staff say that without two staff per resident, the other way just doesn't work.
"Since we were always shortstaffed we always bent that rule," said "John."
Meanwhile, fears of being prosecuted for child abuse keep some staff from acting at all.
"You have some staff that just sit there (when there's an incident)," said Weissman. "You feel bad, but you couldn't blame them."
"If staff get founded, they have children at home," said Carpenter. A charge of child abuse garnered at work can lead to the worker losing their own child: "They're in really, really tough positions."
Aside from the danger to staff, the violence at the facilities places the young people in them at risk. The youth depicted in the video, who got sent to the hospital after being punched in the head six times, served out his remaining three months sequestered from the other inmates for his own safety.
Systemic Failures: Therapy and Education
With the new rules against forcing kids to do things, staff now say that the kids can refuse to attend school and commonly do.
"They can go back to bed and stay there if they want," said Weissman. "You're trying to work with such a wide range of educational levels, it's very difficult. You'll get a kid that said, ‘I'm 16 and so I'm in 10th grade,' and according to their educational assessment they're in third grade. ‘Oh, no I'm not' - and they'll put their head down on the desk and refuse to work.
"Now we can't send kids to their rooms because it's punitive," he added.
What everyone involved in the system seems to agree on is that mental health treatment, education and drug treatment are lacking.
"Frankly, we don't have enough people," said Lifton. "It's hard to get the staff into training when you're understaffed."
OCFS statistics say that a majority of the kids have mental health issues and a slightly smaller majority have drug problems.
"These are very troubled kids," said Lifton. "Unfortunately, in most cases we are probably not dealing with them adequately."
The new policies at OCFS, along with raising the level of violence inside the facilities, may also have an effect on the public. "The policies of draining these facilities have led to serious attacks on innocent people," said Nozzolio. Along with staff at the facilities and several of his colleagues in the state senate, Nozzolio said that the kids are being moved out of the secure facilities into private facilities or community programs with inadequate security, and that puts the public at risk.
Nozzolio cites the shooting of an Rochester police officer, Anthony DiPonzio, as an example of what he fears will happen with downsizing youth facilities under current policies: "He was gunned down by a young person in Rochester who was at one of these locally-based community programs."
DiPonzio, who was shot in the back of the head, survived.
A youth counselor who didn't survive was Renée Greco. Greco, a pretty, petite, 24-year-old youth counselor, was the sole adult in charge of six teenage males at Avenue House, a privately run group home in Lockport. Eighteen-year-old Anthony Allen and 17-year-old Robert Thousand - two white teens from Rochester, who had stolen Greco's car keys and keys to the youth home van the day before - threw a blanket over Greco's head while she sat at a table playing cards with the other kids at the home, then Allen beat her to death with a table leg. Despite his history of violence, Allen had recently been transferred from the boys' secure center at Tryon to the private youth home.
Avenue House has been closed. Allen received a sentence of 25 to life. Thousand, who testified against him, got 20.
A bill sponsored by Assemblyperson Jane Corwin, known as "Renée's Law," is now pending in the Assembly Children and Families Committee, having been passed by the state senate. The bill aims to prevent similar tragedies by requiring that staff receive information on a youth's history of violence, and it attempts to prevent the placement of violent youth in nonsecure settings, such as the one where Greco worked. The bill includes a whistleblower provision, so that staff who report problems will be protected from reprisals.
"If these kids are put back out on the street without adequate protection of the public," said Nozzolio, "You're going to see more violent acts."