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Scant COVID testing for CA’s arrested children

A teen-age girl in a juvenile detention facility. (Photo: chatiyanon, via Shutterstock)

Rasjan sat with his hands folded at a metal table inside a white-walled tank of the Sacramento County Youth Detention Facility. A mask hung around his neck as he peered into a webcam and listened to three adult voices — belonging to a judge and two attorneys — discuss whether he should be released into his grandmother’s care.

On Dec. 30, 2020, the answer was no.

Rasjan was arrested two weeks earlier for allegedly causing a hit and run and possessing a loaded gun, and he would spend at least two more weeks in a juvenile hall that tests every arrested youth for COVID-19.

It may be the only juvenile hall in California that does so.

According to the results of a Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) survey conducted at the end of April, none of the 47 California counties with a juvenile detention facility regularly tests arrested children for a highly contagious virus that is pounding the state.

“I can’t understand why counties aren’t testing every youth and staff [member].” — Brian Goldstein

Sacramento County Chief Probation Officer Lee Seale said his office began the practice in July, while Fresno County probation officials say they plan to start testing all arrested youth within weeks.

Only 12 counties have a policy to even screen arrested minors for COVID-19 symptoms during the booking process, as far as the BSCC is concerned. That amounts to 25% of counties with juvenile detention facilities in California.

That simply isn’t good enough, say advocates for incarcerated children.

“We’re not talking about that many tests … that could prevent the spread of the pandemic inside,” said Brian Goldstein, director of policy and development at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. “I can’t understand why counties aren’t testing every youth and staff [member].”

The BSCC regulates adult and juvenile detention facilities in California. It sets policies and inspects institutions to make sure they’re followed.

But advocates and relatives of incarcerated people say the board has shirked its responsibility by allowing sheriffs and probation chiefs to set their own rules for keeping COVID-19 from infecting people in their custody.

“California needs a credible oversight system over county facilities,” Sue Burrell, policy director at the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, told the board during an online “listening session” last month. “Although BSCC has long used a consensus-based model for regulations development, that model has not adequately protected youth from harm or counties from liability.”

The California Division of Juvenile Justice halted new admissions in November due to repeated COVID-19 outbreaks inside its state youth prisons

As new evidence emerges that the coronavirus can cause lasting health problems for children and adolescents, the state’s juvenile detention facilities are struggling to follow the first rule of responding to a pandemic: Know who is infected.

California and its counties don’t require COVID-19 tests of all minors entering confinement or of the employees who staff the facilities. That has led to muted testing efforts — and some outbreaks — inside child prisons and jails statewide.

The California Division of Juvenile Justice halted new admissions in November due to repeated COVID-19 outbreaks inside its state youth prisons. Sixty minors in custody were positive for the virus as of Jan. 6, the DJJ disclosed on its website.

Local juvenile halls have also experienced problems.

This past November, an outbreak at the William James Ranch in Santa Clara County infected nine of the 25 youth in a single housing unit, resulting in multiple hospitalizations.

Two months before that, Riverside County released several minors from its Southwest Juvenile Hall only to determine after the fact that they’d tested positive for COVID-19.

As of Jan. 2, some number less than 132 kids in detention in 10 counties were positive for the virus.

The exact number of positive cases isn’t known, because the BSCC doesn’t actually require the counties to provide this data, but allows them to submit “less than 11” as a statistic.

Eleven of California’s 58 counties don’t have a juvenile detention facility.

That’s why we only know that fewer than 33 of the infected minors were split between two juvenile halls and a probation camp in Los Angeles County, while less than 22 positive minors were incarcerated at Santa Clara County’s juvenile hall and its James Ranch, the site of November’s outbreak.

In San Diego County, six incarcerated youth and 21 juvenile hall employees were infected with the virus as of Jan. 8.

Since July 19, no county has reported a minor in custody dying from complications of a COVID-19 diagnosis. But that doesn’t mean precautions are being taken to ensure that doesn’t happen.

“COVID-19 has exacerbated long-standing issues in juvenile hall,” Goldstein said in a Jan. 4 phone interview. “We’ve had concerns about medical treatment, about general conditions inside these facilities.”

Eleven of California’s 58 counties don’t have a juvenile detention facility. Of the 47 counties that do, 21 (44.7%) told the state their chief strategy for dealing with the pandemic was to limit new admissions, including the Solano County Probation Department, which expressed “[c]oncerns regarding admission of youth without adequate testing available” in its response to the BSCC survey.

Ten counties reported no changes in how they admitted youth to the BSCC, including Los Angeles County, whose probation department states on its own website that it conducts “verbal screening for every person entering a juvenile detention facility.”

It’s customary for sheriffs’ and probation departments to medically clear arrested people prior to accepting them into their jails and juvenile halls, but COVID-19 diagnoses require specific tests. Most juvenile halls aren’t regularly seeking them.

Seale said the Sacramento County Probation Department’s practice since July has been to test and isolate all youth booked into the local juvenile hall.

According to an analysis of data collected by the BSCC, five counties — Humboldt, Madera, San Joaquin, Tuolumne and Yolo — ordered zero tests during a 20-day span that saw their collective populations grow from 94 minors in custody on Dec. 13, 2020, to 163 incarcerated youth on Jan. 2.

Kern County Chief Probation Officer TR Merickel said his department tests youth and staff according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance or if they exhibit symptoms.

“Our goals related to our COVID-19 testing policy is to work closely with our medical experts, follow CDC guidelines and ensure as safe an environment as possible for our youth and staff,” Merickel wrote in an email.

Seale said the Sacramento County Probation Department’s practice since July has been to test and isolate all youth booked into the local juvenile hall. If the tests come back positive, the minors are housed in the facility’s clinic under medical observation. If their tests are negative, they’re housed with the rest of the population.

“So far, that practice has worked well and kept everyone safe,” Seale wrote in an email.

So why doesn’t every county do it?

Lax oversight
During the virtual “listening session” on Dec. 9, 2020, dozens of advocates and formerly incarcerated people pressed the Board of State and Community Corrections to conduct unannounced inspections of local detention facilities. The board is scheduled to convene Feb. 11 and discuss possible responses to last month’s listening session.

Although the BSCC has the power to regulate and inspect prisons, jails and juvenile halls, inmate-rights advocates say the board is too deferential to the officials who run the lockups.

“We’ve also heard from parents with juveniles in the juvenile facilities that some of their children are getting sick and they aren’t even getting notified.” — Lea Volk

Israel Villa, the deputy director of California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice, told the BSCC board his group tried to warn lawmakers about the lack of protective equipment and proper sanitation in the state’s child prisons over the summer. He said nothing happened and now the Division of Juvenile Justice is experiencing its second viral outbreak.

“We don’t want no counties sending our kids to DJJ where it’s a hot spot,” Villa said. “We don’t want no kids being transferred facility to facility because it’s dangerous. You’re endangering their lives.”

Other speakers focused on transparency at the local level, saying the BSCC doesn’t push back enough when it doesn’t receive basic information about how many incarcerated minors are currently sick with COVID-19

“We’ve also heard from parents with juveniles in the juvenile facilities that some of their children are getting sick and they aren’t even getting notified,” said Lea Volk, a case manager and resource specialist for Fathers & Families of San Joaquin, where the county juvenile hall tested zero of its more than 40 incarcerated minors since Dec. 6, 2020.

“We don’t know what conditions are like in these facilities,” Goldstein told Capitol Weekly in a Jan. 4 phone interview. “What we do know is stories, stories from young people, stories from young people who have loved ones in juvenile halls across the state, and we are hearing some very concerning things.”

A rare ‘best practice
At the Fresno County Juvenile Justice Campus, where more than 110 incarcerated youth went untested for nearly a month, probation officials say their approach will soon change.

Youths brought to the facility are currently screened by local health providers and sent to a hospital for rapid tests only if they show symptoms of COVID-19. Youths who don’t present with fevers or other common symptoms of a hard-to-pin-down virus are sent to a 60-bed housing pod with other newly incarcerated youth to quarantine for 14 days.

“As things have gotten progressively worse in the community … we’ve seen an increase” in staff exposure.” — Keith Haynes

That pod held approximately 11 youths on New Year’s Eve, said juvenile justice campus director Lori Willits.

Youths who do test positive for COVID-19 return to Fresno’s hall and are isolated for 14 days in a separate housing pod. Willits said the isolation pod, which is also two stories and contains 60 beds, is large enough that two infected minors were able to occupy it at the same time once while still maintaining safe distance from each other.

“We have the luxury of having some space to create these intake units,” said Fresno County Chief Probation Officer Keith Haynes.

Probation officials say there has been no outbreak in the general population, which numbered 103 minors on Jan. 2. But there have been two dozen staff infections since July, most of those confirmed off site, said Michael Farmer, one of the facility’s assistant directors.

“As things have gotten progressively worse in the community … we’ve seen an increase” in staff exposure, Haynes added.

Haynes said his department was coordinating with public health officials to begin testing all arrested youth by early February. He and Willits said the holidays complicated the effort, but that there was no reason—and no supply shortage—not to test every child booked into Fresno County’s juvenile hall.

“We’re in the process of doing that now,” Haynes said. “We recognize that that’s a best practice.”

That would put Fresno and Sacramento counties in the minority when it comes to protecting incarcerated children.

 


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