An Arkansas youth jail employee is under investigation for shackling a 15-year-old housed at the Mansfield treatment center and leaving the teen restrained overnight in November, emails from state officials show.
The worker's status is unclear, as the Department of Human Services has declined to answer some questions from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The department, through its Division of Youth Services, manages operations at the Mansfield Juvenile Treatment Center and six other youth lockups across the state.
State law prevents the agency from releasing information regarding individual children in its custody, but it doesn't preclude the department from giving details about staff's employment status.
Marci Manley, a department spokesman, said that any employee under such an investigation typically would be placed on administrative leave, but she did not immediately know whether the worker has been disciplined, nor did she identify him.
Use of force, particularly physical restraints, in juvenile detention has been criticized by watchdogs and investigators who previously found that staffers at several youth lockups improperly used restraints, sometimes resulting in broken bones and civil rights violations.
Emails from one of the boy's caseworkers and the juvenile ombudsman, as well as interviews with his mother, indicate that the shackling is being reviewed by the Human Services Department and that the Mansfield facility director and the Arkansas State Police's Crimes Against Children Division were notified about it this month.
An aftercare worker assigned to the boy's case wrote an email Monday to his mother, Melinda Azlin. In it, the worker explained that she didn't agree with how the teen had been restrained and that she had reported the encounter to the authorities, the juvenile ombudsman and the state police.
"I was going to let you know that when I went to visit with [the boy], it went well until he disclosed actions by a staff member I don't agree with," Michelle Edgin, the aftercare worker, stated in the email.
"I confronted his case manager at the facility, and she read over the report of the incident and claimed she didn't know anything and it wasn't written down. [The boy] disclosed to me that he was restrained for some violent actions, but instead of taking off the restraints when he was calm, he claims that [the state employee] left them on all night, which is not protocol.
"I have every intention of getting this staff member punished for his actions," she continued. "I will not let the kids I care for be treated unfairly. I just wanted to keep you updated. I am trying to find out today what the facility director has decided to do with this news."
As an aftercare worker with a nonprofit contracted by the state, part of Edgin's job is to help kids re-enter the community after their time has been served. She regularly meets with them while they're in detention and continues to work with them and their families at home.
Edgin declined to speak to the newspaper about the incident or the facility's use-of-force policies.
Youth advocates say the use of restraints in youthful-offender facilities is an ongoing problem that puts kids at risk and they have pressed officials to update policies regarding them.
"The use of shackles on youths is frowned upon by American Correctional Association standards," said Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas. "Yet (the Youth Services Division) continues to utilize these techniques."
"I am hopeful that with the new recommendations that were put forth by the Youth Justice Reform Board, [the division] will begin issuing policies related to room confinement in the use of restraint and seclusion at their facilities," he said.
Masseau is a member of the reform board, which aims to overhaul the state's troubled juvenile justice system through many efforts, such as bolstering oversight of youth facilities. The board recently merged with the Arkansas Supreme Court's Commission on Children, Youth and Families. The joint panel is led by Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood and Faulkner County Circuit Judge Troy Braswell.
Masseau said the nonprofit's inspectors, who have federal monitoring authority, were at the Mansfield facility in September and didn't note problems regarding restraints then. He said it was more prevalent at two youthful-offender jails in Dermott, but those facility directors have reported that staffers ceased their use of restraints.
Since at least 2016, Disability Rights has sent letters to the Youth Services Division asking it to make changes in restraint-use policy. For instance, a January 2017 letter stated that youths at the Lewisville Juvenile Treatment Center were shackled and then held outside for hours in bad weather. An October 2016 letter said restraints were used as a response to altercations, even when those involved have calmed down.
A 2014 report by the nonprofit regarding the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center, the state's central intake facility for adjudicated youths, also found that facility guards shackled compliant teenagers and then banged their heads against the wall or struck them in the face. Bruises were left on the children's wrists, according to the report.
Disability Rights inspectors also found discrepancies with how the facility reported its use of restraints. When inspectors requested documentation about the use of restraints in 2013 and 2014, they were told that staffers employed restraints 332 times. But when the inspectors went to the facility during a surprise visit and asked to see records, the numbers didn't match up.
In May, then-Youth Services Division Director Betty Guhman said in reply to one of Disability Rights' letters, that the agency had prioritized "standardizing and promulgating policy and subsequent staff training" regarding restraint use.
Manley was unable to immediately provide the Human Services Department's latest use-of-force policy.
County-run juvenile-offender jails have similar problems.
A 2014 Democrat-Gazette investigation revealed that guards at the Yell County Juvenile Detention Center hogtied and pepper-sprayed children before placing them in a full-body immobilization restraint device. A mechanical restraint chair was also used to punish children for "mouthing" obscene gestures or banging on doors. A new Yell County facility administrator has since banned the use of chemical and physical restraints there.
The mother of the teen in Mansfield said she could see the bruises on her son's wrist, where the shackles had been. Azlin had driven almost three hours from Benton to visit him at the Mansfield lockup in western Arkansas in early December, only days after he spent hours chained by his wrists and ankles.
He told Azlin what precipitated the shackling incident. He had been worried about getting beaten up by the other teens at the facility, those who shared living quarters with him, so he began kicking the door. That's when four guards tackled him to the floor and restrained him, he told her. He said that even after he calmed down, he spent the night fettered.
He has been restrained before, his mother said. That time, Azlin said, when he calmed down, he was unshackled, but guards took away his blankets and sheets as punishment, even though it was cold outside.
Azlin said she worries every day about her son's safety. He's been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression.
"There's no way this place is going to be good for him," she said. "It's supposed to be 'treatment.'"
Metro on 12/13/2018
Print Headline: Emails: Arkansas youth jail staffer under review after boy in state custody spent night in shackles