Staff members in a youth lockup at Lewisville zip-tied children, forced them to urinate in foam cups or Gatorade bottles, slammed them into walls and gave them Benadryl when they needed mental health care, according to the state's juvenile ombudsman.
Ombudsman Brooke Digby laid out those allegations in a three-page email Aug. 11 to Jim Hill, the president of Youth Opportunity Investments, whose firm manages the Lewisville Juvenile Treatment Center and three other state youth jails.
The Indiana-based company took over management of the four youth lockups on July 1 under a one-year, $15.8 million contract.
"Mr. Hill, I realize mistakes happen," Digby wrote. "I knew growing pains would occur. But this is far past a mistake or a growing pain. This is not treatment -- this is torture."
"We appreciate the ombudsman bringing this information to our attention quickly," Division of Youth Services Director Michael Crump said in a written statement Wednesday after the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette inquired about reports of abuse at Lewisville.
"These are extremely serious allegations that we are investigating, and our preliminary findings show that youth slept with their wrists shackled. That should not have happened, and our contractor's leadership understands that," Crump said.
Gary Sallee, a spokesman for Youth Opportunity, said via email that the company found no evidence of abuse after its own investigation, which he said was conducted in conjunction with the Youth Services Division. He added that Youth Opportunity is waiting for an investigation from the Arkansas State Police to confirm those findings.
Youth Services Division spokeswoman Amy Webb said the agency is conducting an investigation separate from Youth Opportunity's.
Crump said in an interview Friday that Digby's report doesn't raise red flags about Youth Opportunity for him.
"There's four facilities they're running, and this is really the first allegation of something that arises to that level," Crump said.
The 32-bed Lewisville Juvenile Treatment Center opened in 1994 and is home to some of the "more resistant juveniles who are commonly disruptive in milder settings," according to the Arkansas Department of Human Services website.
At a meeting Friday of the Arkansas Supreme Court Commission on Children, Youth & Families, Crump at first described Digby's allegations as "an incident" and "some problems."
But Tom Masseau, director of Disability Rights, explained the details of allegations that his staff had heard from talking with kids at Lewisville. The nonprofit Disability Rights is federally authorized to monitor the treatment of disabled individuals.
"The allegations were terrible," Crump responded. "They ended up being terrible."
Masseau described use of restraints -- including zip ties -- children being given foam cups to urinate in, and staff refusing to let them file grievances. His descriptions were nearly identical to those outlined in Digby's email.
"If I did that to my child at home, I would have [Child Protective Services] at my door taking my kids away," Masseau said.
'CRIED OUT IN PAIN'
Digby, who works in the Public Defender Commission, visited Lewisville unannounced on Aug. 7 to talk to more than 20 teens in the facility.
She notified the Division of Youth Services via email later that day that youths had been forced to sleep in restraints and that she had witnessed them being denied use of the bathroom.
In her Aug. 11 report to Youth Opportunity, she wrote: "I realize your contract in Lewisville just started on July 1, 2019; however, it is in a state of crisis and has only regressed over the last month."
"I can assure you we will look into and address these issues immediately," Hill replied.
Hill did not respond to the newspaper's request for comment.
The day after Digby's visit, the Youth Services Division sent four facility monitors to investigate further, reviewed video footage of the incidents, asked that the center's assistant director and two other staff members be placed on leave and asked for a formal corrective action plan from Youth Opportunity by Wednesday, Webb said in an email sent Wednesday.
Crump said in an interview Friday that the division is in the middle of a restructuring and that the monitors are fairly new. They're still developing a rapport with the kids, he said.
During the children and youth commission meeting, he also said that the Youth Services Division wants to restructure the process of filing grievances for child inmates so they don't have to tell the staff that they want to file the report.
Teens described instances to Digby in which the assistant director, referred to in the email as "Mr. Williams," slammed kids into walls and used holds on them until youths "cried out in pain," or couldn't breathe, she noted in her Aug. 11 email.
Sallee said Youth Opportunity believes that the incidents cited by Digby were isolated, but the company is providing more training to the staff.
The company's corrective action plan was still being reviewed by the state Friday. The Youth Services Division is requiring the firm to give the staff training on use of restraints, isolation, effective de-escalation and redirection techniques, Webb said.
"YOI has worked, and will continue to work, closely with the Division of Youth Services personnel to ensure that all policies and procedures are being followed," Sallee said via email. "In cases where it's identified that staff did not follow appropriate policies, YOI will address accordingly."
'OUTRAGEOUS AND INHUMANE'
Youths told Digby that they were handcuffed, shackled or zip-tied overnight and locked in their rooms for days at a time.
She wrote in her email that she saw video of assistant directors restraining kids, taking away their beds and forcing them to sleep facedown on mats on the concrete floor.
In some instances, she wrote, the restraints were so tight that youths weren't able to walk the next day.
"I saw cuts and bruises on several youths' wrists consistent with improper use of restraints," the email reads. "Some youth had imprints from zip-ties still embedded in their skin even though several days had passed from the time they were allegedly used."
Crump said the use of restraints was the only allegation the Youth Services Division had been able to confirm so far in its investigation. The agency's investigation confirmed that youths were restrained late Aug. 3 after a disturbance and were not released from the cuffs until 7:30 a.m. the next day. Some were taken to the bathroom still in restraints.
Sallee said in an emailed response to questions about the allegations that staff members restrained youths in response to two incidents instigated by the children.
In the first case, eight youths assaulted a staff member, resulting in "serious injuries," Sallee said. During the second incident, 10 teens used their bed frames to break through security doors into the sleeping area.
"At the time of each incident, the administration of Lewisville took measures deemed by those in the fray necessary to ensure the safety of the staff, youth, and the community," Sallee said.
"They placed these youth in plastic restraints. At no time was every youth in the facility placed in restraints. DYS policy does permit the use of mechanical restraints when a situation occurs that warrants this level of response."
But Digby wrote that the use of restraints "violated every restraint policy DYS has."
She added that she had witnessed the staff telling teens they couldn't use the bathroom. Staff members confirmed to Digby that they'd had to clean up foam cups full of urine in the mornings.
Kids said they were given the cups when they asked to go to the bathroom outside of scheduled times, she wrote. One said he had to defecate on the floor.
"This is outrageous and inhumane to say the least," Digby wrote.
Sallee said no youths had been given cups or bottles to urinate in, other than one on July 28 who had asked to use the bathroom and was told to wait. The teen "impatiently utilized an empty water bottle to relieve himself," Sallee said.
But Masseau said at Friday's commission meeting that his staff had heard complaints from kids similar to those in Digby's email.
One child told Digby about an incident during which he was suicidal, restrained and Youth Opportunity staff members dragged him by the ankle shackles from his cottage to the nurses' station. When they got him there, rather than assessing him for mental health needs, they gave him the antihistamine Benadryl to help him sleep.
"This is unacceptable and inexcusable," Digby wrote.
Sallee said the lockup's medical staff recommended the allergy medication, and that the medical staff is not contracted by Youth Opportunity.
Digby's report goes on to say that some youths weren't allowed to file grievances reporting what was going on, while others' reports were never addressed.
She also wrote that the facility's directors denied having any knowledge of or participating in the events, which staff members said was not true.
"When directors feel the need to be dishonest, it makes you wonder what other things are being covered up," she wrote to Hill. "I do not trust your directors at Lewisville Juvenile Treatment Center. Their judgment took away basic human rights and placed juveniles directly in harm's way."
Amanda Bailey, whose son is in Lewisville, said he told her he was restrained by the staff and kept in his room for days. She hopes to have the teenager, who is not being identified because he is a minor, out in the next few weeks.
Her son violated probation, which he'd been on because of what Bailey calls "petty stuff," such as throwing peaches at passing semi trucks. He was set to spend at least half a year in the lockup.
"He's beaten. He's broke down. He's alone. He's angry. He's scared," Bailey said.
Masseau expressed frustration at Friday's commission meeting because, he said, these sorts of allegations have come up repeatedly over the years.
"This is not an isolated incident," he said. "We really need to take some action, figure out what is going on and figure out what we as a state can do."
Over the past years, various youth facilities have been plagued with allegations of pepper-spraying kids, needlessly confining child inmates and sexual assault.
Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood, who chairs the commission, suggested asking the governor to create an oversight panel to review allegations of this type.
"When I hear what you're saying, I'm not surprised and I'm not shocked," Wood told Masseau. "It's probably awful, but I sort have become jaded."
Crump said he welcomed anyone on the commission to review the videos. He added that during the transition from state to private management, there had been some "really good reports" from some of the treatment centers.
Masseau hammered that something needed to be done, questioning what needed to happen for change to occur.
"Is it going to take one of these youth to die? Is it going to take a serious abuse?" he asked. "I really think we need to be proactive and figure it out."
SundayMonday on 08/18/2019
Print Headline: Ombudsman details abuses at Arkansas kids lockup