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Wayne County to lift public health emergency involving juvenile jail

May 26, 2023May 26, 2023

A top Wayne County official said they've improved conditions so much at the troubled juvenile jail that on Monday he expects to lift a rare public health emergency order issued this spring in the wake of problems that included an alleged sexual assault of a 12-year-old boy by other youths at the facility.

State officials say they agree the county-run facility has gotten better, enough so that on Monday they plan to stop sending staffers in that they've had on-site to monitor operations 24 hours a day, seven days a week since the March attack at the Wayne County Juvenile Detention Facility (JDF).

The understaffed and overcrowded juvenile jail had become "untenable" for the about 140 youths residing there as of mid-March, admitted Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, saying shortly after the boy's assault that "we feel like these kids are not safe. Our staff is not safe."

The attack came after an ongoing Detroit Free Press investigation since last year that documented the dangerous conditions, which critics called "deplorable" and "inhumane," including that youths were locked in rooms for long periods and denied daily showers, recreation, medication and schooling.

More:Problems we found at the Wayne County juvenile jail

More:'These kids are not safe. Our staff is not safe' -- Wayne County Executive Warren Evans declares public health emergency at juvenile jail

Under the public health order, the county set aside $10 million for the JDF and boosted employee pay by up to 35%, which led to hiring 54 new staffers, according to a county news release. Facility staff also opened up additional living areas, called pods, in the facility and grouped youths in smaller numbers and by age and alleged offense to boost safety. In addition, the state helped place more than 40 youths in other facilities, including in nearby counties.

Now most of the 113 juveniles at the JDF as of Monday were out of their rooms the majority of the day, they are getting daily showers and assaults on other youths and staff are down, said Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, director of the county's Department of Health, Human and Veteran Services.

"It reflects, I think, a partnership that we’ve been able to build with the courts and the state all working as one unit to give our kids the best shot ... at moving through the facility," El-Sayed said.

The county also is no longer using variances from the state of Michigan that allowed it to bend state rules on locking down juveniles and the ratio of staffing to residents. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services had granted the county's multiple variance requests because of overcrowding and understaffing since spring 2022 but those expired late last month.

"Given that we have vastly increased our staffing and reduced our population, we feel that we are able to operate under normal procedure," El-Sayed said.

County officials say the current staff to youth ratio is 1 to 10, meeting the requirement in licensing rules for waking hours. They have an additional 60 open positions and are hoping to hire a new JDF director and chief administrator.

"We’ve talked to the county directly and our staff is there, less complaints are coming in about things but it's still a juvenile detention facility, so there are going to be issues," Suzanna Shkreli told the Free Press in an interview last week. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in March named Shkreli as the state's director of juvenile justice reform and she has worked closely with JDF staff.

"But we know the youth are receiving programming, that they are receiving their hygiene kits. That they are out of ... their rooms more than they ever have been. That they are receiving recreation."

There remain 13 active state investigations into incidents at the JDF, Shkreli said last week. And Michigan State Police have said they are still investigating the assault of the 12-year-old.

In an effort to improve safety in October, Evans chose to abandon the juvenile facility on St. Antoine downtown and move youths to a vacant adult jail, the William Dickerson Detention Facility in Hamtramck. But youths still found ways to break out of their rooms and problems continued.

Earlier this year, tensions between the county and state were high about who was to blame for the JDF's failures. Evans and his staff sent heated letters to a state official and Whitmer herself in January and February, laying the blame for the dangerous conditions on her administration.

Evans argued that the state hadn't done enough to solve the shortage of facilities that house and treat juveniles after they've been sentenced by judges, causing youths to languish for months in the JDF while they await placements.

Currently, there are 40 youths at the JDF whose cases have been adjudicated and are awaiting placement in a residential facility so they can start getting the treatment a judge ordered. Typically, that can include treatment for behavioral and mental health issues.

In declaring the public health emergency in March, Evans said keeping youths locked up after a judge had already decided to send them into placement was almost "a constitutional problem" and unfair.

"They're losing time but not getting credit for it," El-Sayed said last week. "Unlike in the adult system which is ... you get time served."

State officials have said they have increased capacity at residential treatment facilities, allocating $3 million to Spectrum Human Services, which runs a facility in Highland Park. Since March, 38 youths from the JDF have been placed at Spectrum's facility there, Shkreli said. Neighboring Genesee and Macomb counties also took some the JDF youths.

County and state officials have worked with local service provider Team Wellness Center to offer treatment for youths both at the JDF and through a community based day program.

El-Sayed said Team Wellness Center is expected to begin in-facility services on June 15 inside the JDF for youths who have been ordered by the court into treatment, but are awaiting placements. El-Sayed said the county envisions a path where youths in its care could get treatment that counts toward the treatment they’ve been ordered to receive.

"What we’re trying to do is build a quality rehabilitative system where, potentially, we can get time against treatment," he said.

He said the county hasn't "gotten that commitment from anyone yet," but it's a strategy they are trying to pursue.

In addition to the in-house services, El-Sayed said the launch of a Team Wellness Center community day program for youths is "imminent."

He said that, to start, the program will accept a dozen youths at the JDF who have been ordered into treatment. They would be sent home on tether and go to the Team Wellness Center programming during the day.

Getting kids help while they remain in their own homes is the goal, said Jason Smith, executive director of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice, in an email to the Free Press.

He said he is glad to hear about the improved conditions at the JDF and thanked state and local leaders for "rectifying a situation that was unquestionably inhumane for far too long."

"While these improvements are encouraging, we urge all stakeholders to continue seeking further enhancements in the care of our young people within the Wayne County juvenile justice system," Smith said. "Specifically, we hope that innovative strategies will be developed to not only improve the quality of treatment at JDF but also to safely and effectively allow more youth to be treated and supervised in their own homes to prevent such a horrible, traumatic experience for young people housed in the facility from reoccurring."

Contact Christine MacDonald: [email protected] or 313-418-2149. Follow her on Twitter: @cmacfreep. Contact Gina Kaufman: [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @ReporterGina.

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