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Holder Speaks Out Against Solitary Confinement of Mentally Ill Youths

In a video, Attorney General Holder spoke out against excessive use of isolation and solitary confinement for young people with disabilities at juvenile detention centers.
In a video, Attorney General Holder spoke out against excessive use of isolation and solitary confinement for young people with disabilities at juvenile detention centers.

U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. condemned “excessive” use of solitary confinement of children with mental illness in juvenile facilities.

“At a minimum, we must work to curb the overreliance on seclusion of youth with disabilities,” including mental illness, Holder said in a video posted on the Justice Department website.

“This practice is particularly detrimental to young people with disabilities, who are at increased risk under these circumstances of negative effects, including self-harm and even suicide,” the attorney general said. “In fact, one national study found that half of the victims of suicides in juvenile facilities were in isolation at the time they took their own lives, and 62 percent of victims had a history of solitary confinement.”

lifeintheboxAs JJIE reported in March, thousands of juveniles endure solitary confinement each year in the United States, often in tiny cells for 22 to 24 hours a day with little human contact, even though a growing number of experts say the practice causes irreparable psychological and developmental harm to youths.

Holder noted that in some cases, children were held in small rooms with windows barely the width of their hands.

“This is, to say the least, excessive, and these episodes are all too common,” he said.

“Across the country,” Holder said, “far too many juvenile detention centers see isolation and solitary confinement as an appropriate way to handle challenging youth, in particular, youth with disabilities. But solitary confinement can be dangerous and a serious impediment to the ability of juveniles to succeed once released.”

He pointed to a study released last year by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) showing 47 percent of juvenile detention centers reported locking youth up in some form of isolation for more than four hours at a time.

Holder said it may sometimes be necessary to separate a youth from others to protect staff, other inmates or the juvenile from harm.

“However,” he added, “this action should be taken only in a limited way where there is a valid reason to do so – and for a limited amount of time.”

Holder also said juveniles placed in isolation must be closely monitored and detention facilities must make “every attempt” to continue educational and mental health programming while a youth is in isolation.

“We must ensure in all circumstances, and particularly when it comes to our young people, that incarceration is used to rehabilitate and not merely to warehouse and to forget,” Holder said.

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel with the ACLU's National Prison Project, praised Holder’s statement.

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“The ACLU commends Attorney General Holder for speaking out against the harmful practice of placing vulnerable youth in solitary confinement,” Fettig said in an e-mail to JJIE.  “This action clearly signals that such practices should not be tolerated in our society and that jurisdictions across the country must stop placing children in solitary confinement.

“But,” Fettig added, “the attorney general needs to go further. He must speak out against using the practice on any child – not just children with disabilities.  Thousands of kids in this country are subject to solitary confinement every year, and this practice harms each and every one of them.”

The Justice Department has taken action in recent months in response to what it said was use of solitary confinement of youths with disabilities.

In March, the department said it asked a federal court to prevent the Ohio Department of Youth Services from unlawfully placing boys with mental health disorders in solitary confinement at the state’s juvenile detention facilities. The department alleged in a motion that DYS violated the constitutional rights of boys placed in solitary at all four of the state’s juvenile detention facilities.

In February, the department’s Civil Rights Division filed a statement of interest in response to what it called excessive reliance on solitary confinement of disabled youths in Contra Costa County, Calif. The statement alleged youths were held in solitary confinement up to 22 hours a day, often with no human interaction whatsoever.

And a task force commissioned by Holder, the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, concluded in its final report in December 2012: “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.” The task force recommended the practice be forbidden. Robert L. Listenbee Jr., now the OJJDP  administrator, co-chaired the task force.

In his role as OJJDP administrator, Listenbee stated in a July 5, 2013, letter to an American Civil Liberties Union official that “isolation of children is dangerous and inconsistent with best practices and that excessive isolation can constitute cruel and unusual punishment,” which is banned under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

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OP-ED: Countering the Effects of Violence on Native Children

Listenbee-RobertOne of the most important and unsettling observations I made during my 22-year career as a trial lawyer for youth was that young people who enter the juvenile justice system, especially those charged with serious offenses, are likely to have been exposed to violence, often many times, as children. Every path to delinquency takes a different course, but the experience of childhood trauma is as close to a common marker as you will find.

Two years ago, while serving as co-chair of the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, I heard from others across the country about the high rates of violence encountered by children and how this early exposure is the foundation not just of later delinquent and criminal behavior but of a host of other problems, from poor academic performance to long-term illness. With two out of every three American children touched by violence and trauma in some way, my colleagues on the task force and I agreed that this could rightly be called a national crisis.

We heard that this crisis is even more acute – if we could believe that was even possible – in communities where American Indian and Alaska Native children live. Rates of crime and violence in some tribal areas are alarmingly high, often exceeding and sometimes dwarfing those of other jurisdictions, leading to the reasonable conclusion that native children are at especially high risk. As one tribal leader put it, for those in Indian country “the question is not who has been exposed to violence, it’s who hasn’t been exposed to violence.” The testimony of tribal officials and native people was so compelling, and the available research on native children and violence so paltry, that we recommended creating a separate task force to study the issue.

Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder acted on that recommendation and established the American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence Task Force, which is anchored by two separate bodies: a working group assembled to identify actions that federal agencies can take and a 13-member national advisory committee whose job is to improve our understanding of children’s exposure to violence in Indian country and recommend ways to address it.  The federal working group has been meeting since last summer and already has taken several important steps, including expanding educational services inside Bureau of Indian Affairs juvenile detention facilities.

The advisory committee, chaired by former United States Sen. Byron Dorgan and Iroquois composer and performer Joanne Shenandoah, recently held its first hearing in Bismarck, N.D., where tribal leaders, child and family advocates, Native Americans who have experienced childhood trauma, and others came together to talk about child sexual abuse, violence in the home, and the intersection between child maltreatment and domestic abuse.

Their testimony underscored what researchers have told us – that the shared historic experience by American Indian and Alaska Native people of displacement, forced assimilation and cultural suppression leaves a legacy of trauma that elevates the risk of child maltreatment.

Over the coming year, committee members will hold three more hearings and several listening sessions and will consult other experts on the topic. By the end of 2014, they will put together a report for the Attorney General suggesting ways that policymakers, practitioners, and researchers across the nation can address this troubling phenomenon.  The attorney general’s hope is that their recommendations will be bold and visionary and give the country a clear roadmap to countering violence among native children.

Violence in many tribal communities is complex and deep-rooted.  We can’t expect it to go away on its own. But we can fight back by improving our understanding of it and supporting effective practices, many of which spring from tribal traditions, that help avert violence and enhance resilience among affected children.

Our work will not be easy, but a strong collective commitment to the safety and well-being of native children will guide us to success.

 

Bob Listenbee is the Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a component of the Office of Justice Programs within the United States Department of Justice.

 

Childhood Trauma Threatens National Well-Being: DOJ Task Force

Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary Lou Leary, Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Acting Administrator of the OJJDP, Melodee Hanes, at a federal interagency meeting on juvenile justice Wednesday. Photo by Kaukab Jhumra Smith.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Two out of three children in the United States experience or witness violence, crime or abuse while growing up, a public health crisis that harms their emotional, physical and intellectual development and makes them more likely to perpetrate the same trauma upon their own children, a national task force appointed by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said this week.

The long-term well-being of the country is at stake unless federal and local governments and their communities act to reduce the incidence and impact of such trauma upon young Americans, the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence concluded in its final report.

The report detailed 56 policy recommendations for reducing such exposure to trauma and treating its fallout. Such exposure could occur anywhere, the report said: at home, at school, in the community and on the Internet.

“There is a moral component to this question,” Holder said at a public meeting of the federal interagency Coordinating Council for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which approved the report’s release. “This is about what kind of America do you want to have. This is a question of who we are as a nation.”

The imperative to act on the epidemic was not simply moral, it was economic, Holder said. A person impacted by childhood trauma who went “down a criminal path” would cost the country $3 million over his or her lifetime, Holder said. “By contrast, the cost of effective prevention is typically only a few hundred or a few thousand per person.”

The task force’s report emphasized that argument. “The financial costs of children’s exposure to violence are astronomical. The financial burden on other public systems, including child welfare, social services, law enforcement, juvenile justice, and, in particular, education, is staggering when combined with the loss of productivity over children’s lifetimes,” it read.

The outcomes are worst for children whose exposure to trauma goes unnoticed and who don’t receive support from parents, caregivers or their communities, said Dr. Steven Marans, a member of the task force and a professor of psychiatry at Yale University’s Child Study Center and School of Medicine.

Co-chaired by baseball legend Joe Torre, who grew up aware of his mother’s abuse at the hands of his father and who now heads a foundation against domestic violence, the task force based its recommendations upon the latest available research and testimonials from public hearings attended by community residents, researchers, child welfare workers and advocates from 27 states and the District of Columbia.

The task force examined different programs, strategies and services to help young people develop and thrive, said task force member Georgina Mendoza, the director for community safety in Salinas, Calif. It found that the most promising programs are those that take a multidisciplinary and multi-jurisdictional approach and coordinate responses between agencies and organizations serving the same populations, she said.

“There are so many different aspects of people’s lives. They don’t live in a silo’ed world. We do,” Mendoza said of child welfare practitioners.

Agencies that serve children and families should also develop their understanding of the cultural origins of members of their community and incorporate within their programming the challenges faced by children of immigrants, rural communities, tribal communities, inner cities and other marginalized groups, Mendoza said.

Young people who break the law should be screened for their exposure to violence and trauma as part of the standard of care at juvenile justice facilities, and should be prosecuted within the juvenile system and not in the adult criminal justice system, said Robert Listenbee Jr., the co-chair of the task force and the chief of the juvenile unit at the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

Young people must be included in community efforts to address their exposure to violence and crime and allowed to develop leadership within them, Mendoza said. If young people are not consulted, she said, they will not feel ownership or accountability over those efforts and the efforts will fail.

Holder upheld participation by young people as a key part of the solution. “I do think that involving our young people in this effort and reaching out other young people will make this much more effective,” Holder said.

The findings of the task force will play a critical role in guiding federal and local efforts for years to come, Holder said.

“We have to keep pushing to raise the consciousness of the American people about the nature, the depth and breadth of this problem,” Holder said. “This is not going to be shelved. This will be a priority for the Justice Department and for this administration.”