Las Vegas Sun

January 16, 2018

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Staff: Juveniles once housed at higher-security facility a threat

When the state closed the maximum-security Summit View Youth Correctional Center near Nellis Air Force Base in May to save money, lawmakers were told that violent youths transferred to a lower-security reformatory in Elko would not put its staff and nonviolent juveniles at risk.

But two people familiar with the Nevada Youth Training Center for boys aged 12 to 18 told the Sun that staff injuries have increased because of Summit View’s closing and other factors, including eliminated sports activities and changes that followed a Justice Department investigation of the Elko center.

The people, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that at least 17 of 57 group supervisors have been struck or otherwise hurt since last fall. All are unarmed but help provide security and assist with programs. The observers also said nine employees are drawing workers’ compensation for injuries, at least four of which were caused by assaults.

State officials who work in the juvenile justice system say the Elko facility is perfectly safe, but the union that represents some of its workers disagrees. The union says more staffing and better security measures are needed to control youths who have been convicted of just about every crime short of murder or attempted murder.

The Nevada Child and Family Services Division, which runs the Elko facility and operated Summit View, declined to comment on the claims, saying they are personnel matters. But the center’s superintendent, Erika Olson, said Monday facility officials will ask the Legislature next year for money to increase supervision of the most problematic juveniles, although she declined to disclose the amount she is seeking or the number of youths affected.

The staffing ratio is one group supervisor for every 10 juveniles during the day and evening and one for every 16 juveniles overnight. A proposed ratio for unruly youths is one staffer for six children round-the-clock, Olson said.

“Right now we think the children are safe and the staff is safe,” Olson said. “This budget request is simply due diligence on our behalf to address children who have exhausted other programs in the juvenile justice system.”

Officials with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 4041 in Carson City, which represents some workers, confirmed they’ve received complaints from members about the Elko facility and are upset at what they say is lack of state response.

“We’ve had numerous members complaining about these issues for years but it falls on deaf ears,” union spokesman Vishnu Subramaniam said. “We can’t have nonlaw enforcement officers securing facilities that have violent children. Those children need to be placed in lockdown facilities. This is a disaster waiting to happen, and there will be a lot of liability and consequences for the state.”

Added one of the people who spoke anonymously: “There are staff members the youth training center can’t keep because they don’t want to get beat up. They’re not equipped or trained properly to supervise these children.”

The state’s numbers suggest, though, that incidents requiring use of force are declining, although the juvenile population, now at 134, has been relatively flat in recent years. The Elko center had 126 use-of-force incidents in 2008, 125 last year and 84 so far this year, Olson said.

The juvenile justice system first attempts to keep offenders in their communities but if those programs don’t work, the children are transferred to the Elko facility for boys or to a coed reformatory in Caliente. Juveniles who are disruptive at those facilities were the ones typically transferred to Summit View.

The Child and Family Services Division calculated that closing Summit View — a facility surrounded by barbed wire with lockdown cells — would save the cash-strapped state $3.5 million over the next two years. From February through May, when Summit View closed, just seven juveniles were transferred back to Elko, an open, unfenced campus where most children stay in unlocked cottages. But the two observers and union officials said Elko has become more dangerous in part because it can no longer transfer the worst of the juveniles back to Summit View.

Olson said her facility handled such children when Summit View closed once before years ago. And Fernando Serrano, deputy administrator of juvenile justice services for the state, said he is confident the state has the proper mix of behavioral and cognitive programs to control the children.

“The severity of a minor’s record does not necessarily translate to problems at the facility,” Serrano said. “Often it’s the environment the youth came from that led to his offense. But when the youth is with us he is in our environment, and we do everything we can to address their problems in our environment.”

But because the Elko center was designed as a low-security facility, there is little the staff can do to discipline violent children, said Owen Sullivan, a labor representative for Local 4041. Closing Summit View was akin to removing from the Elko staff “the threat of the stick.”

“There is a great deal of demoralization out there,” he said. Sullivan said staff members have approached supervisors with recommendations to improve discipline at the facility but their suggestions have “gone unheeded.”

If the state does not return violent offenders to maximum-security facilities, Sullivan said staffing should be increased at Elko and it should be immune from the mandatory one-day-a-month state employee furloughs that save the state money.

“The potential for civil rights lawsuits is great right now,” Sullivan said. “Let’s say you’re a parent and you have a kid who you thought was in a facility for nonviolent children and then the state unloads a bunch of hardened juveniles into that facility. It creates a different mix.”

The Justice Department criticized the Elko facility after an investigation in 2001 into allegations that staffers were using excessive force to control unruly juveniles.

In 2008, the department found the facility in full compliance with recommendations to use less severe force.

Serrano said those “handle with care” techniques are based on national standards. But one of the people who spoke anonymously said the techniques don’t work with larger, stronger juveniles. It can take three or four adults to restrain such a boy.

The observer said “the people on staff are handcuffed” because they think other techniques would be more effective in controlling juveniles without hurting anyone. But the observer said that if staff members complain, “they can be disciplined.”

And last year, Elko’s sports programs were eliminated in a cost-saving move. Suddenly, a facility whose boys had won individual state titles in track and who had competed against area high schools in football, basketball, cross country and wrestling was without sports.

“The sports programs gave the children motivation to behave,” one of the individuals said. “They all wanted to be sports heroes.”

But the person said the official reasoning behind the cuts — that sports was causing the state to pay coaches too much in overtime — was bogus because staffers and volunteers in the community were willing to provide their services for free.

“The center lost two staff members because they came to coach but couldn’t anymore,” the individual said.

Chrystal Main, systems advocate for the child and family services division, said the sports programs were as crucial to the Elko center as are shrinking music and arts programs in school districts, “but we’re all dealing with the same budget cuts.”

Olson added: “As much as we were heartbroken to give up the sports program, I haven’t seen any negative impacts because of the loss of that program.”

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