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Advocacy group lauds Kane County Juvenile Justice Center; changes also recommended
By MARK FOSTER -
A prison watchdog group is giving the Kane County Juvenile Justice Center high marks for its treatment of the youth there and its educational programming.
At the same time, the inmate advocacy organization is recommending changes to the center’s visitation policy, that better clothing be issued to the young people and an increase in psychiatric care.
The John Howard Association of Illinois visited the Kane County Juvenile Justice Center earlier this year and has issued a report on the challenges faced by the facility, which houses young people who have run afoul of the law. Some remain at the center for only a few days, while others stay longer while awaiting trial on criminal charges, such as aggravated battery or domestic battery.
“This facility showed a commitment to transparency and evidenced an understanding of the importance of accountability to the public, working to exceed the minimum standards expected by law,” JHA Executive Director Jennifer Vollen-Katz wrote in a summary of the report.
After the visit, but before the release of the report, the JJC bought new mattresses and blankets for the youth, which had been mentioned by the young people during their interviews with JHA staff.
“JHA was impressed with the dedication of the Kane JJC administrators and staff we met to helping youth and providing innovative programing, despite limitations on staffing and resources,” according to the text of the report.
In particular, the report commended the JJC for limiting strip searches of youth when they are brought to the facility for intake and classification.
“That’s pretty impressive,” Vollen-Katz said during a telephone interview.
According to the report, “Research shows that youth in detention, many of whom have prior histories of physical, emotional or sexual abuse, suffer serious psychological harm and lasting trauma from such searches.”
The Kane JJC limits the strip searches to about 20 percent of the youth, while the rest receive pat-downs, the report said.
The JHA report describes the 80-bed Kane JJC facility as “very clean, well-maintained and in good overall physical condition.”
The report’s call for increased resources devoted to psychiatric care is a common refrain at prisons and detention facilities throughout the state.
“Understaffing of mental health staff positions is an endemic, longstanding problem not just at Kane JJC, but [at] most of Illinois’ juvenile and adult jails and prisons,” according to the report.
The JHA report noted that most youth at the facility, because of the behavioral levels at which they have been assessed, are not eligible for “contact visits” with parents or guardians.
Instead, the youth and parents are in separate rooms, viewing each other through glass and speaking on a telephone, the report said.
“Youth and loved ones are not able to touch, hug, kiss or hold hands,” the report said, and there is “no reasonable privacy to allow for confidential conversation and unguarded expressions of emotion and affection between youth and parents as youth are located in the same room, next to each other and within earshot during no-contact visits.”
Kane JJC Superintendent Mike Davis responded in an email about the visits: “The design of the building itself provides limited space to handle contact visits, and any expansion will require capital funds to remodel the area.”
Ivars Spalis, principal of the JJC’s school, said during a telephone interview that the educational staff includes four teachers, one each for math, science, history and English, and a special education coordinator.
“Each student is a valuable and unique individual with a potential for success,” Spalis said.
But there are challenges. When admitted, the students immediately undergo testing that often reveals difficulty with reading.
“They are usually a couple of levels below where they should be,” Spalis said.
Students experience a full, six-period classroom day, Spalis said, which includes health and wellness, behavior management and social skills, he said.
The JHA report, while calling for increased educational resources, commended the Kane JJC for the work at the school.
“Some of the difficulties there are not for lack of caring,” Vollen-Katz said in the telephone interview. “They certainly understand the value of programming.”
The Kane County Chronicle submitted questions by email to Kane County Juvenile Justice Center Superintendent Mike Davis. Here are the questions and his responses:
KCC: How did the visit by the John Howard Association come about?
Mike Davis: The John Howard Association regularly monitors state-run facilities and has recently also become interested in detention facilities run by local counties. They reached out and requested to visit our facility. Our school program is often cited as [a] model for other facilities to follow and we work hard to be innovative with limited resources, so we were happy to talk with them about our facility and programming.
KCC: Principal Ivars Spalis gave us a breakdown on his staff at the school. Please tell us about the rest of the staff at the JJC.
Davis: The Kane County Juvenile Justice Center (JJC) is budgeted for up to 53 youth counselors. The youth counselors supervise the residents during all daily activities, conduct out-of-building and court transports, prepare detention reports for the court and facilitate focus groups with the residents aimed at identifying how negative thoughts influence feelings and behaviors. There are also six supervisors who directly supervise the staff and manage day-to-day activities in detention. The JJC employs a federally required PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) coordinator. She coordinates all of the JJC’s compliance efforts and reporting requirements required by the act and coordinates scheduling of mandated PREA audits. We also have a full-time psychologist, an assistant superintendent and a superintendent. The JJC contracts with an agency to provide medical and psychiatric services and they provide nursing coverage seven days a week on both first and second shifts and a physician who visits weekly, as does a psychiatrist (that will be addressed further below in response to your question about psychiatric coverage).
KCC: Was the basic factual information in the report concerning the facility correct?
Davis: Short answer, yes. It’s important to note that the John Howard Association’s recommendations exceed state and federal guidelines; they are more of an “aspirational” organization who gives recommendations based on ideal circumstances regardless of real budget limitations. Some of their recommendations we are not going to implement at this time, such as remodeling the building to expand the visitation area for example. However, other of their recommendations are achievable and within our current budget.
KCC: What actions, if any, have been taken or are you planning to take as a result of suggestions made in the report?
Davis: As mentioned, we already purchased new mattresses. We recognize that it’s difficult for children to be away from their families and homes and a good night’s rest can be challenging in detention, so we’ve also purchased new warmer fleece style blankets and increased the number of blankets issued to each resident. We currently have an educational video about the court system that we show to the residents, and now we’re looking into additional ways to provide residents with a better understanding of the court process. It’s challenging for detention staff; however, as we aren’t attorneys and we can’t give legal advice so we need to be careful that we aren’t providing inaccurate information.
KCC: It appears that the biggest issue raised in the report concerns the visitation policy. Could you please explain your policy, whether you are considering any changes, or why any changes would not be practical?
Davis: The report really emphasized that they would like for us to expand visitation options for the families of the residents and we will also be looking into options to do this. As mentioned in the report, currently only those residents on our highest (or most compliant) behavior level are allowed “contact” visits. All other residents use a phone to communicate with visitors through a glass barrier. The design of the building itself provides limited space to handle contact visits and any expansion will require capital funds to remodel the area. We recognize the importance of the family bond and the potential benefits of expanding contact visitation, but we want to approach the issue cautiously and have a sound plan in place before moving forward. We’re currently evaluating our options and the physical layout of our visitation area and trying to come up with a plan that we can afford.
KCC: Please describe the challenges you face because of the lack of psychiatric coverage and limited resources for in-patient psychiatric placements.
Davis: On average, 40 percent of the kids detained at our facility are prescribed and take psychotropic medication on a daily basis. That doesn’t include those residents who are non-compliant with their medication and those who haven’t yet been diagnosed but are definitely exhibiting behaviors that indicate there may be an underlying mental illness driving their erratic and sometimes aggressive behaviors. The vast majority of our residents have also experienced significant trauma or sexual abuse during their childhood. As mentioned in the report, it has become necessary to increase psychiatric coverage. In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in the number of kids with serious mental health issues being detained. On average, more than once a month, a resident is hospitalized from our facility for mental health reasons. Those hospital stays are normally short-term, usually just long enough to get them “stabilized,” which results in those kids returning to our facility. Managing these children’s mental health isn’t only an issue of ensuring their well-being, but it also is a safety concern for both the residents and our staff. Some untreated/unstable residents display erratic behavior and have acted out aggressively towards staff and other residents. Also as mentioned in the report, finding long-term residential placements able to meet the needs of these children is difficult, resulting in longer stays in detention.
KCC: Is there anything about the JJC you want people to know?
Davis: We believe that detention can play a role in reducing recidivism by giving residents access to a quality education program and by utilizing proven methods to assist residents in understanding how their thoughts influence their feelings and actions. By teaching residents to identify negative self-thoughts, modeling and practicing desired outcomes and positive reinforcement, we hope to interrupt thinking patterns which can result in young people making bad decisions. The bottom line is that we’re working with the children. It’s our duty to provide a safe, positive environment that will decrease the odds of them getting into further trouble and committing crimes once they have their cases resolved through the court system and return to their families.