Mentally ill juveniles in Ohio correctional facilities are being unlawfully punished by being locked in seclusion, causing them “real, irreparable harm,” the U.S. Justice Department said in a lawsuit filed this week.
“The state has systematically violated the substantive due process rights of boys with mental health disorders at four of its juvenile correctional facilities,” the federal agency said a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court seeking a temporary restraining order against the Ohio Department of Youth Services.
“Seclusion has become the state’s modus operandi for handling boys with mental illness,” the lawsuit said. “In the last six months of 2013, the state imposed almost 60,000 hours of seclusion on boys at the facilities...This Court must act immediately to protect these boys from mounting and irreparable harm. The State punishes the boys with seclusion (i.e., solitary confinement) for days on end, often also depriving them of education, exercise, programming and crucial mental health care.”
DYS spokeswoman Kim Parsell issued a statement in response.
“Addressing youths’ mental health needs is absolutely critical in our work of rehabilitating youth. This is why we provide youth with individualized, evidence-based behavioral health services, education, recreation, and more.
“We have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for youth and staff, and seclusion is used as a last resort to maintain safety and order so that we can help youth change their lives. Even when youth are in seclusion, we continue to offer them treatment and programming.”
The Justice Department’s harsh assessment also said the state offers mentally juvenile offenders “cut-and-paste treatment plans that bear little relationship to the mental health needs of a particular boy.” The agency also expanded an existing lawsuit to “include claims of unlawful seclusion at all DYS facilities.”
Seclusion is used in juvenile facilities as a disciplinary measure, often for violent acts.
The Justice Department cited unidentified cases in which one juvenile spent 1,964 hours in seclusion in a six-month period, while another was locked up alone for 21 straight days.
A Nov. 8, 2013, memo from Kelly Dedel, a government monitor of Ohio’s youth prisons, cited 10 mentally ill juveniles who spent from 11 to 38 percent of their time seclusion over six months. She also noted that 50 percent of all juvenile prison suicides are committed by youths in seclusion.
“The Ohio Department of Youth Services must stop violating the rights of youth in its custody through unlawful seclusion,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels said in a statement. “The way in which Ohio uses seclusion to punish youth with mental health needs, victimizes one of the most vulnerable groups in our society.” U.S. Attorney Steven M. Dettelbach said the facts “ reveal a serious disregard for the rights of young people with mental health needs in Ohio’s custody.”
Terry Russell, executive director of National Alliance Mental Illness Ohio, said of the lawsuit, “It is unfortunate that it has come to this. NAMI Ohio and several of our partners have been working over ten years to try to convince the State of Ohio to develop a statewide policy to greatly limit the use of seclusion and restraint. It should never be used as a form of punishment, but only as a last resort if the safety of the youth, other youth or staff are at serious risk of injury. Most kids who come to the attention of the justice system have been traumatized, and many — if not most — have some form of mental health disorder. Seclusion and restraint only serves to traumatize them further and exacerbate their illness.”
Late last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio sent DYS a letter urging the agency to ban seclusion entirely.
“Growing research and federal government agencies agree that the use of isolation on children is both harmful and counterproductive,” ACLU Director Christine Link wrote. “There is no doubt that Ohio routinely uses the harmful practice of seclusion and isolation on detained children.”
By Alan Johnson - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
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