The state Division of Youth Services released a report Wednesday praising action taken by Yell County officials after a youth advocate discovered that the county's juvenile detention center was using a restraint device to punish children for minor misbehavior.
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The three-page report by a Youth Services Division internal affairs investigator commends Yell County Sheriff Bill Gilkey for removing the device known as The Wrap and taking five corrective actions over the past two months that include retraining staff members on how to treat youths in their care.
The report summarizes a review of the lockup ordered after the use of the restraint became public and a newspaper investigation found that the device was used routinely for punishment.
The report's release came the same day a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, which oversees the Youth Services Division, said the agency will not be conducting any further investigation into the use of the restraint beyond what was detailed in the report.
"The facility has responded. They removed the device. They're going through training. So we're just moving on looking at how to improve," spokesman Kate Luck said. "We've looked at the past incidents and have made the decision that because of the changes that facility has made, we don't anticipate any further investigation or action."
In an email, Capt. John Foster, the chief deputy at the Yell County sheriff's office, said he hadn't seen the report until provided a copy by a reporter.
"We are encouraged by much of what was said and will continue working with DYS on training and programming for the future," Foster wrote. "However, as we've previously stated, I have to respectfully decline to comment any further at this time."
The report comes after Scott Tanner, the juvenile ombudsman for the Arkansas Public Defender Commission, discovered in September that staff members at the Yell County Juvenile Detention Center were using The Wrap to punish youths, a violation of state juvenile detention standards.
On Wednesday, Tanner said he agreed that the sheriff's office had been prompt in removing the device, but he encouraged the Youth Services Division to be more stringent in its monitoring of facilities such as the Yell County lockup.
The Yell County sheriff's office "has taken significant recourse to make sure the culture in that detention center is improving," Tanner said. "But it's going to require a concerted effort to continue to monitor conditions, not just at that detention facility but anytime we utilize out-of-home placement to ensure that the care is impactful and is provided in a humane and appropriate setting."
Tanner found that staff members at the lockup placed youths in The Wrap for two hours at a time and sometimes longer -- their hands cuffed behind their backs, legs strapped together and chest immobilized by a harness and a strap connected to their feet.
In some cases, guards placed a motorcycle helmet wrapped in duct tape over the youths' heads, putting them in near total darkness.
The practice became public in early October after the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published a photo and article detailing how the device was used. The article was based on photos and other documents obtained in response to an Arkansas Freedom of Information Act request.
In November, the newspaper published an investigation that found that detention center staff routinely used The Wrap and a mechanical restraint chair to punish youths for behavior such as throwing wet socks, insults, vulgar gestures, name-calling, yelling, screaming, and banging on windows and doors.
In total, the newspaper found that staff members used restraints to punish youths for nonviolent behavior 40 out of 52 times between January and September of this year.
The Democrat-Gazette based its investigation on internal incident reports obtained from the Yell County lockup under the state Freedom of Information Act.
After the newspaper turned over copies of more than 50 incident reports to the Youth Services Division, the agency determined it hadn't been receiving reports from the Yell County facility, a violation of the agency's written agreement with the county.
Human Services Director John Selig also ordered the review of the Yell County lockup that was conducted by the internal affairs investigator, April Hannah.
In an interview, Luck said Hannah reviewed the reports turned over by the newspaper and determined that 20 youths in the division's custody were listed as having been placed in The Wrap.
The reports list individual employees who put the youths in the device, but Luck said the Youth Services Division wouldn't be pursuing those employees for disciplinary action or criminal charges.
"We did look to see which employees were involved in the incidents. We did not see any behaviors that we believe cannot be changed with training. All staff will be undergoing training, and we believe that will eliminate the need for further discipline," Luck said.
Facility administrator Robin Barefield, who was appointed to the position in October, is one of the employees who has undergone additional training.
Barefield replaced Kristi Padgett, who Yell County officials have said resigned for reasons unrelated to the use of The Wrap.
The Yell County officials have said that they believed The Wrap restraint system was being used according to policy as a safe way to restrain violent subjects without the risk of positional asphyxia -- a condition that occurs when a person can't breathe because of the position or posture of his body.
The Yell County officials have declined to discuss how the device was allowed to be used for punishment for nonviolent misbehavior.
But in Wednesday's report, Hannah places blame on Padgett for how The Wrap was used, saying that Gilkey and his chief deputy were aware that the device was being used, but "they did not know its applications process had been modified by the previous JDC administrator."
A phone message left Wednesday for Padgett, who has since been hired by the Human Services Department, wasn't returned.
Several reports reviewed by the newspaper listed Padgett as authorizing the use of The Wrap. But the reports also list Barefield, who was previously the assistant facility administrator, as authorizing the device's use as well.
Barefield has declined to comment on the use of The Wrap in response to requests from the newspaper.
When asked about the actions detailed in the reports, Luck said the agency had confidence in Barefield because of how the facility has responded to the division's concerns.
"Looking at the corrective action plan that's in place, we're confident we're not going to have any problems," Luck said.
Hannah noted Barefield's appointment as one of five corrective actions taken by the sheriff's office.
The facility has revised its policy and will now send incident reports to the Youth Services Division.
Staff members at the juvenile detention center also are undergoing 40 hours of training on conflict resolution, anger and behavior management and other techniques to control youths.
In addition to corrective actions, Hannah wrote that the sheriff's office was also seeking to recruit and train people from the nearby area to visit the lockup and mentor youths.
"Based off the interactions that DYS staff have had with the Yell County Sheriff's Department & Yell County JDC staff, I feel the actions they've taken so far are very positive and sincere. They are earnestly soliciting our input into all procedural changes that are occurring at Yell County JDC," Hannah wrote.
Hannah said that all the youths she spoke with at the facility had "favorable things to say regarding their care and stay," and they felt that "staff were concerned about their overall well-being and that they were treated fairly and equally."
None of the youths reported any neglect or abuse, Hannah wrote.
But she notes that only two of the five she met with individually were at the facility when The Wrap was in use. Of those, only one had "seen [The Wrap] utilized on another youth," she wrote.
Steve Nawojczyk, who manages the Youth Services Division's Systems Improvement Unit, also visited with youths as a part of a campuswide meeting.
"The youth all had favorable things to say about their interactions with the staff, and no one reported any incidents of abuse or neglect," the report said of the group meeting.
Nawojczyk also met with detention center staff and was impressed with the teacher at the lockup, whom the report described as an "encouraging, firm and fair person."
The division's investigators also were impressed by a "surprise birthday song for the administrator" that was performed by the youths during one of the visits to the facility.
Metro on 12/11/2014
Print Headline: Report lauds kids lockup's new measures