Virginia report clears child detention center of abuse, but youths’ lawyer says investigation was insufficient

Posted at 9:08 PM, Aug 14, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-14 21:08:31-04

Harsh treatment alleged by immigrant youths held at a Virginia juvenile detention center didn’t amount to abuse or neglect under state law, a state investigation ordered by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam concluded on Monday.

The allegations, which include that staff verbally and physically abused children, strapped them to restraint chairs for extended periods of time and put bags over their heads, and held them in solitary confinement, are detailed in an October 2017 class-action lawsuit against the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center. The center contracts with the federal government to hold immigrant detainees with severe psychiatric or psychological issues and risk of self-harm.

Northam ordered the investigation on June 21, after news organizations, including CNN, reported the allegations drawn from legal declarations made by children held at the facility between 2015 and 2018. One youth, for example, said he was left naked, strapped to a restraint chair, for more than two days.

Although Northam’s public statement this week said he ordered officials to look into the allegations in the lawsuit, the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice and Child Protective Services said they focused on current conditions at Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center.

“After DJJ’s thorough investigation, it did make referrals to local child protective services, but based on their investigation, determined that no further action was necessary,” the report said. In closing, it said: “The conclusions of their (DJJ’s and CPS’s) investigations indicate that there were no life, health, or safety concerns for the residents at SVJC. As of July 3, CPS completed its investigation into the allegations of abuse and found that there was no evidence of abuse or neglect.”

On Monday, Northam praised “the quick and comprehensive examination by the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Social Services.”

Attorneys for the immigrant youths slammed the report as a whitewash.

“It was a shockingly inadequate investigation,” said Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which represents the youths in the class-action lawsuit. He said the report was insufficiently reported and misleading.

“They didn’t look at the primary allegation of the suit, that these kids with serious mental illnesses from trauma are not being provided adequate mental health services,” he said.

Smith said that Juvenile Justice investigators didn’t speak with attorneys for the children and didn’t interview any of the youths who made the allegations in the lawsuit. All those children have been moved to other facilities, deported, or released to relatives. He said the report did not reference any of the declarations of mistreatment that have been filed in court. Smith also pointed out that investigators were required to interview the 22 immigrant youths at Shenandoah in the presence of a staff member, raising concerns about whether they felt able to speak freely.

The report said that investigators found no instances of any youth confined to their rooms for more than 23 hours, and no instances of the use of the restraint chair. But Smith said court filings, including documents provided by Shenandoah, “show repeated examples of longer confinements, and of youths being strapped in the restraint chair as punishment rather than to protect youths and staff.”

“Had investigators spoken with us, we could have pointed them to the public record that would have disputed the one-sided report they got from the facility,” Smith said.

The Department of Juvenile Justice, in an emailed response, said that the records of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are under a protective order due to the litigation, and that DJJ investigated “current conditions at SVJC to ensure there were no life, health or safety issues with regard to residents in the facility.” DJJ Director Andrew Block declined a request for an interview and did not respond to other issues raised by Smith.

The Virginia report notes that the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement restricted investigators’ access to people and records. They couldn’t copy case files or keep written notes of information in those files.

Three youths did tell investigators they had been subjected to abusive behavior by staff. However, the report said that Virginia Child Protective Services “determined that these complaints did not meet the legal definition of abuse and neglect.”

Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In June, the organization said they did use a restraint chair as a last resort for aggressive behavior, but told CNN, “Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center believes the allegations of the complaint to be without merit and looks forward to the opportunity to present evidence that will allow a jury to reach the same conclusion.”

Gov. Northam’s office also had not responded by publication to requests for comment on Smith’s characterization of the report.

The lawsuit against Shenandoah is set to go to trial in December.