The facilities run by the state Office of Children and Family Services for juvenile offenders may be semi-secure, but they are not safe. That’s not just for the kids, but for the adult staff as well, something they have been complaining about the last few years and a new report by Assemblyman Rory Lancman, a Democratic assemblyman from Queens, documents.
The state needs to take this situation seriously, without going back to the old system where staff’s use of excessive force and restraints against kids was routine and injury to kids was common. That system was condemned by the New York State Inspector General and the U.S. Justice Department, among others.
The unions are using the report, which shows a big spike in workplace injuries between 2007 and 2009 at OCFS facilities (most of them from breaking up fights), as evidence that the more therapeutic, “sanctuary” approach adopted by the agency in 2007 is not working. But that doesn’t mean it cannot work. In fact it worked pretty well until the mid-1990s, when Gov. Pataki had the agency adopt a strict “adult correctional facility model.” Violent incidents were already increasing after that, but not as much as in the last few years.
The sanctuary model still sounds good. It doesn’t forbid the use of restraints, but allows them only when kids are a danger to themselves or other kids, or to staff, or when they have to be escorted out of a place where they shouldn’t be and refuse to leave.
But it also assumes that staff will be properly trained in when to use restraints and not, and in how to interact with kids so situations don’t escalate and they have to be used. It assumes that each facility will do a risk assessment and there will be regular staff-management meetings with the goal of minimizing workplace violence. And it assumes that there will be adequate professional staff to treat kids’ mental health problems.
These things have been delayed, done inadequately or not at all, so the sanctuary model hasn’t had a fair test. The unions are right to keep pushing for them, and the state, whatever its financial problems, must find a way to provide them. It has a moral obligation to at least try to ensure the safety of those in its custody, as well as the people in charge of them.