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Sunday, April 22, 2018, 1:51 a.m.

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Arkansas youth lockup worker fired after teen's escape

By Amanda Claire Curcio

This article was published April 17, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

State officials fired a supervisor of a Harrisburg juvenile lockup last Thursday, five days after the short-lived escape of a teenage boy who had been detained there.

Alonzo Simmons, a shift supervisor at Harrisburg, was terminated for violating a department policy outlining standards of "diligent and competent performance," said Amy Webb, spokesman for the Department of Human Services.

Hours before the escape, Simmons failed to notify his supervisor that other staff members overheard four youths planning to run away and he didn't set up any standard precautions that could hinder the youths' chances of escape, Webb explained.

Then, at midnight on April 6, she said, a 16-year-old boy ran out of the dormitory while he was being escorted to the "quiet room" -- a place designated for youths who need time to calm down. The staff-to-youth ratio at the time was roughly 1-to-5.

Poinsett County sheriff's office deputies found the teen two hours later. No known offenses were committed during his escape.

Simmons has yet to be replaced, Webb said.

The Harrisburg Juvenile Treatment Center, which currently houses 19 youths, has reported a string of escapes since the start of 2017, which prompted the firing of its director. In one case, a 17-year-old bolted through an exit door at night and ran off into the dark; in another, two teens escaped during a transition between afternoon classes.

Harrisburg Police Chief Gary Hefner previously told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the lockup "needed to tighten its security" after on-duty officers and extra help were called in to comb the area for missing teens.

In August, Harrisburg facility director Derwin Sims was ousted, succeeded by the lockup's assistant director, April Hines. In February, Hines was fired and replaced by Pamela Kaplan, whose yearly salary is $50,222, according to state records.

Webb said she couldn't immediately disclose further details about the reason behind Hines' termination.

Youths have run away from the state-run youth lockups four times last year and two times in 2018, according to Human Services Department records. This is a marked increase from previous years, when there'd only been one escape from Harrisburg between 2012 and 2016.

The Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center, near Alexander, was the only other lockup with an escape last year. Rite of Passage, a Nevada-based firm, has been in charge of that facility since August 2016.

The state took control of Harrisburg and six other juvenile centers in January 2017. Before, the sites were operated under contract by Arkansas-based nonprofits.

A bidding skirmish in 2016 between the in-state nonprofits already running the centers and an Indiana-based private firm the state had selected to run them for $160 million, prompted Gov. Asa Hutchinson to direct the Human Services Department to take over operation of the sites.

The Division of Youth Services, which falls under the Human Services Department, recently hired juvenile justice experts to study its residential facilities and the needs of the children detained there.

The $73,678 contract with the Center for Children's Law and Policy -- a national organization that focuses on reducing the needless incarceration of children -- begins this year. The center will evaluate the services provided at the lockups, sentencing lengths, the relationship with the community and organizational structure.

Contract documents show that the study will be funded equally through the state's general revenue fund and "other funds" marked for residential treatment.

Betty Guhman, the Youth Services Division director, said the agency will use the center's review to reshape how Arkansas treats adjudicated youths. She plans to return the jails' operation to private control next year.

Metro on 04/17/2018

Print Headline: Youth lockup worker is fired; Inmate’s escape prompted action

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