Staff members at the state’s largest youth lockup physically restrained disruptive children in many situations that could have been defused earlier using verbal calming tactics, a consultant has found.
In a report presented to state officials Tuesday, juvenile-justice consultant Darryl Olson wrote that the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center needs to reduce the number of staff members’ “physical interventions” and implement new policies and practices to better handle disruptive children.
Olson based his finding on a review of 40 to 50 instances where staff members used physical restraints or holds on children during the months of April, May and June.
“A large majority of the physical interventions that were reviewed did not initially involve a response to violent or aggressive behavior,” Olson wrote. “Rather, they began with non-compliant behavior that escalated into a physical confrontation between the youth and staff.
“These interventions can easily be avoided,” he added.
None of the physical restraints reviewed by Olson resulted in serious injuries for either youths or staff members, and all of the restraints were determined to have been used appropriately, he said.
Olson’s findings concerning physical restraints were one of more than 20 recommendations he made for improvements at the lockup in Alexander. The lockup houses about 100 of the state’s most violent and behaviorally troubled youths.
Olson also found that all of the youths he interviewed responded that they felt safe at the lockup and that their basic needs were being met.
His review came after a near doubling of assaults at the lockup was reported by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in mid-June. The newspaper also reported that lockup employees had been accused of physically assaulting youths on three separate occasions this year, all of which resulted in the firing or resignation of employees involved.
Olson’s review came at the request of Florida-based contractor G4S Youth Services, which has been paid about $10 million per year to operate the lockup in Alexander. Olson’s review was the first of its kind conducted at the facility since the G4S took over in 2007.
On Tuesday, Brian Neupaver, vice president of operations for G4S, said his company has already made several changes to its training and practices that he expects will quickly reduce the number of assaults at the facility.
“I think we’re seeing results already,” Neupaver said. “And I do anticipate over the next 60 to 90 days to see very positive results from the actions taken to date.”
The biggest change, Neupaver said, is that the facility has revised the system it uses to manage the youths’ behavior by giving them incentives to earn rewards for good behavior. The company has also beefed up its training regarding de-escalating disruptive situations without resorting to physical restraints.
He said the changes are aimed at improving the culture at the facility and curbing not only the use of physical restraints by staff members but also assaults among youths.
Youth-on-youth assaults have made up the largest number of assaults reported at the facility in recent years. That includes the 327 assaults reported in 2013, a 98 percent increase from the 165 reported in 2012, according to internal data from the state Division of Youth Services.
Data from G4S shows that through May 31 of this year, there were 135 assaults in 151 days at the youth lockup, including 91 involving physical contact described as “strikes, hits or punches.” Of those 91 physical assaults, 54 were between youths and 37 involved youths striking staff members.
Amy Webb, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, which oversees the Youth Services Division, said the agency is so far satisfied with G4S’ response to addressing the increase in assaults.
“They have been very responsive to our concerns,” Webb said. “We didn’t want to see a cursory look at things.”
After the increase in assaults became public, the nonprofit Disability Rights Center of Arkansas — which has investigative powers under federal law to enter facilities that house people with disabilities — sent monitors into the lockup to review its safety.
In an interview Tuesday, Tom Masseau, the director of the Disability Rights Center, said he agreed that the facility needs to reduce physical restraints and was encouraged that G4S was taking steps to address the increase in assaults.
But Masseau said his monitors have heard a vastly different description of the facility from children they’ve interviewed.
“We interviewed a lot of kids out there, and the common theme for us was that they are just getting by. They don’t feel safe,” Masseau said. “There are a lot of dead spots in the cameras in the facility. Staff know where the dead areas are. They don’t feel safe with certain staff. They don’t feel safe with their peers.”
Masseau said he questioned Olson’s ability to objectively review the lockup because of his association with the contractor.
Olson worked for 34 years in the juvenile justice system in Florida, where G4S Youth Services is based and operates several youth facilities. G4S officials have said Olson routinely reviews several of its facilities on a quarterly basis.
“I’m happy that they’re acknowledging that there are problems at the facility, but I would have hoped that it would have been a truly independent review, free of conflict of interest to get the full picture of what’s happening out there,” Masseau said.
Masseau’s monitors have been on-site at the facility several times over the past two months, including when Olson visited from June 24-27.
During his visit, Olson wrote that he interviewed 37 youths, including all 13 girls housed at the facility at the time of his visit.
He also interviewed numerous staff members and reviewed documents, including reports detailing staff members’ use of physical restraints.
In an interview Tuesday, Olson said he didn’t review any incidents where a staff member had been found to have used an inappropriate or banned method of restraining a child, including any that resulted in assaults or firings.
He said the majority of the physical restraints he reviewed were appropriately used when altercations became physical, but staff members shouldn’t have let the altercations escalate.
“Yeah, they were necessary and appropriate at that point, but I believe a large majority could have been avoided if they hadn’t gotten to that point,” Olson said.
Regardless, Olson said the facility needs to avoid physical interventions because they impede “development of a positive relationship between staff and youth that is essential in creating an environment where treatment can be effective.”
In addition to reducing physical restraints, Olson also found:
• The facility needs to keep better track of physical interventions and the result of certain strategies to see if they work to curb disruptive behavior and reduce physical contact between youths and staff members.
• The facility’s youth advocate should be reviewing all incidents involving physical intervention, and the reviews should include interviewing youths and any witnesses.
• The facility should stop assigning male staff members to oversee the girls unit.
G4S officials said Tuesday that they weren’t aware of any problems that had arisen with male workers at the girls dormitory, but the men had been reassigned to head off any potential inappropriate situations.
Olson also found that strategies used to manage behavior appeared to work for the majority of youths at the facility, but they have been less effective at controlling the behavior of the “most disruptive.”
Olson referred to 12 youths that G4S had singled out as being involved in the majority of reported assaults at the lockup during the first five months of the year. The group of youths accounted for 71 of 135 assaults at the lockup reported during the first five months of the year, according to internal company figures.
In his report, Olson wrote that 11 of the 12 have been placed in another treatment center for juvenile delinquents at least once before going to the lockup in Alexander. But only half of them have been identified as needing specific treatment for violent or aggressive behavior, a number he said he expected to be higher.
In an interview Tuesday, Neupaver said the lockup reassigned more experienced staff members and case managers to work with the 12 youths.
In addition, the facility is training all of its staff on working with youths who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The workers are also being trained on “trauma-informed care” — methods used to care for children who may have been the victims of physical or sexual abuse or experienced other traumatic events.
The company plans to add staffing to address the recommendations in Olson’s report. Neupaver said the company is working to hire a certified behavioral analyst and a facility investigator who will report to the corporate offices in Florida.
But the biggest change at the facility is revising its system for managing youths’ behavior.
Rickie Grant, G4S director of operations, said the company had an incentive-based system in place before this summer, but it has since revised it based on Olson’s recommendations and input from the youths.
The “positive performance system,” which was implemented last week, will now allow youths to earn points for good behavior and use those points to get rewards such as candy, extra time outside or the ability to stay up later. The program fits into the model that the company uses in most of its juvenile facilities, Grant said.
“Kids either earn, or they don’t earn. So with that we try to incentivize kids [to behave] on a daily, weekly and monthly basis,” Grant said.
In response to the changes, Masseau of the disability rights group said he hopes that the changes don’t lead to unintended consequences.
“The culture of promoting positive behaviors with a reward is great, but I think we can take it a step too far. It really doesn’t teach kids to do something good just because it’s the right thing to do,” Masseau said.
But Neupaver said he already has noticed an improvement in the morale among the youths since the program was implemented.
“We walk around here. It’s not a volatile facility,” Neupaver said.
He said he believes the facility will continue to see improvement on reducing assaults. The company will also be having Olson review the lockup quarterly.
Print Headline: Curb restraints, lockup advised