Story by Lindsey Millar, Founder - Arkansas Nonprofit News Network (ANNN)
DERMOTT, Ark. (ANNN) - Teenagers confined to two state-run South Arkansas juvenile lockup facilities lived in unsafe and unsanitary conditions and saw many of their basic needs neglected for much of 2017, an Arkansas Nonprofit News Network investigation has found.
Nine current and former workers at the juvenile facilities, in Dermott, told the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network that youths regularly lacked sufficient hygiene supplies, including soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes and laundry detergent throughout 2017. Air-conditioning only worked sporadically in multiple dorms throughout the summer, when the outdoor temperature often approached 100 degrees. The heating units in multiple dorms did not function for weeks in the winter, when temperatures dipped below freezing. During the fall and winter, until Jan. 27, the youngest teenagers confined at the facilities did not have coats.
Current and former staffers also said teenagers frequently were not adequately supervised. Regularly in 2017, the number of staff did not meet the American Correctional Association standard of one direct care staff member to eight youths. On the many days the facilities were understaffed last year, one teenager raped another, several youths attempted suicide and others attempted escape.
The Dermott Juvenile Treatment Center for 13- to 17-year-old boys is one of seven juvenile lockups referred to as treatment centers by the Arkansas Department of Human Services' Division of Youth Services, which oversees them. As the name suggests, treatment facilities are intended to be rehabilitative rather than punitive. Youths committed to the facilities must complete treatment plans designed by the DYS, rather than time-based sentences. Under state supervision, they are referred to as "clients" rather than "inmates." The nearby Dermott Juvenile Correctional Facility houses 18- to 21-year-olds who were committed to a treatment center as juveniles but have not yet completed their treatment plans.
Senior DYS staff said that their records did not reflect chronic supply shortages or extended outages of air-conditioning and heating units. But DYS Director Betty Guhman conceded serious problems existed at the Dermott facilities, including a snag in the state's procurement process that left teenagers at the treatment facility without coats until late January.
"That should never have happened," Guhman said. More generally, Guhman said, "We realize that some things have slipped between the cracks, and we don't want that to happen. We want to stay on top of it."
The systemic breakdowns alleged by staff amount to neglect, said Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, a nonprofit advocacy group that is federally designated to monitor state juvenile lockups. DRA visited the Dermott facilities in December and noted that one dorm in the correctional facility lacked heat, some correctional residents were without jackets and correctional residents had insufficient hygiene supplies. DRA additionally found standing water in a residential building and cafeteria, kitchen equipment in disrepair, dirty and moldy showers and shattered glass in the entryways of two dorms. It detailed its findings in a Jan. 19 letter to Guhman.
Masseau said that if the state held juvenile lockups to the same standards as it does for long-term care facilities for the elderly and developmentally disabled, the lockups would be forced to shut down. He said if the DYS did not improve conditions at the Dermott facilities, DRA would consider filing a lawsuit in federal court.
In January 2017, at Governor Hutchinson's direction, the DYS took direct control of seven of the state's eight youth lockups, including the two facilities at Dermott. The lockups had been operated by two nonprofits, South Arkansas Youth Services and Consolidated Youth Services, for over 20 years; SAYS ran the Dermott facilities (SAYS recently filed for bankruptcy; the filing indicates that the FBI and the Arkansas attorney general are investigating the nonprofit). The unexpected takeover order came in response to a political stalemate over the DYS' decision to switch to a new vendor. Legislators sympathetic to the ousted nonprofits blocked the new vendor's contract in late 2016, which meant the state would have entered the new year with no one to run the facilities at all. But Hutchinson directed the DYS to assume direct management of the facilities, and, in a matter of days, some 300 staff members at the facilities were converted into state employees. The state had not directly operated any of the treatment centers in more than 20 years.
Shortly after the takeover, Disability Rights Arkansas said the DYS was struggling to maintain day-to-day operations at the lockups. According to a Jan. 26, 2017, letter to Guhman from the nonprofit advocacy group, mental health therapy had all but ceased at the facilities. The Dermott facilities were chronically understaffed and residents were living in what the letter described as "deplorable conditions not conducive to rehabilitation."
That conditions at the Dermott facility have not improved after a year of state control is a sign that lawmakers need to take a closer look at the juvenile system, Masseau said.
"I think the only way this is going to change is for the legislature to take a stand. We continue to pour money into the division with no increase for infrastructure and buildings are falling apart. There's no one holding anyone accountable for these issues," he said.
K. Knuckles, 16, was committed to the Dermott Juvenile Treatment Center in April 2017 and released in October. (Because he is a juvenile, the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is identifying him by his first initial only). He said that for most of his time in Dermott, the treatment center did not provide him with basic hygiene supplies, including soap, toothpaste and laundry detergent. He said direct care staff he was "cool with" would sometimes personally supply him with what he needed.
K.'s father, Benjamin Knuckles, repeatedly called to complain and offer to provide toiletries for his son.
"My son's a very clean person. That stuff drove him crazy, not having hygiene stuff," Benjamin Knuckles said. "They kept telling me, 'No, you can't do it,' but I guess they finally had enough issues where they couldn't provide the stuff." In September, he said, "They finally started saying the parents could bring the kids like soap, toothpaste, things like that."
While K. was committed to the treatment facility, he said only one other youth, among the 32 housed there, received supplies from family. K. also said that for nearly his entire time at Dermott the facility only provided him with slip-on sandals. Benjamin Knuckles said he sent his son a new pair of shoes for which he paid a little more than $100. K. wore the shoes one time and then turned them over to his case manager because other teenagers had threatened to steal them.
Jimmie Bynum, a former direct care staff member at the juvenile correctional center, echoed the Knuckleses' accounts. Bynum said staff regularly bought the likes of toilet paper and soap out of their own pockets for clients before parents were allowed to send supplies.
Tensions emerged when some youths received shoes and supplies while others did not, Bynum said. "Some of the kids wore Nikes and other kids had to wear lesser shoes. It caused a problem."
(Bynum was fired in November 2017 for using unnecessary physical force on a client. A Dermott Police Department report said video of the incident showed the youth take a pen off Bynum's desk. When Bynum demanded it back, the youth hit him in the face and a struggle ensued. In the course of the struggle, Bynum received a cut on his hand and the youth received a 4-inch cut to his stomach that required stitches. The Dermott police concluded the cuts came from the pen and cleared Bynum of any wrongdoing. Bynum said there was no way he could follow the state's required protocol for subduing clients while being attacked.)
For all of fall 2017 and much of this winter — including in the final weeks of December and first several weeks of January, when the average daily temperature was often below freezing and the temperature in Dermott dropped as low as 6 degrees — none of the nearly three-dozen teenage boys confined to the treatment center had coats or jackets to keep them warm as they moved between the buildings on campus and engaged in recreation time. Despite a procurement request made in September by facility staff, the state did not provide the children outerwear until Jan. 27.
Antonio Willis worked as a direct care staffer in the correctional facility from May to September 2017. He quit, he said, because the stress of the job was negatively affecting his health.
"They didn't have hygiene supplies," he said. "We were supposed to give them out every Monday, but I worked there for [almost] six months, and I can remember doing it like six or seven times. I remember kids would have to share the little bottle of soap that they would get from their parents, when their parents come visit them. They would share that little bottle of soap with the whole dorm room [of eight residents]."
A current staffer at the correctional facility, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, said clients "never have any hygiene products," such as deodorant and toothpaste, and that supervisors had regularly purchased soap with their own money for clients. The staffer said some of the residents without shoes had been forced to wear slip-on sandals outside during rain and cold weather. The employee called the lack of proper shoes neglect. "What if the kid catches the flu or pneumonia or something like that?" the staffer asked.
DYS Director Guhman said the abrupt state takeover of the lockups in January 2017 made it difficult to integrate the facilities into the state procurement process and led to supply shortages initially, but she said she believed those issues had largely been corrected. She said she could not find records indicating that Dermott facilities went without critical supplies for long periods.
"Facility directors keep inventory, they submit their requests, and those are filled. ... I don't know what to say about not having enough hygiene supplies at this point in time," she said. "Yes, early on, that was an issue, but we feel like that's been addressed."
But in an Oct. 30 email obtained through the state Freedom of Information Act, John Whaley, who was then the director of both Dermott facilities, complained to Guhman and another senior DYS official that requisitions for clothing, shoes and hygiene items were submitted July 13 and resubmitted Aug. 22. He said that a requisition for a barber to cut residents' hair was submitted July 7 and not approved until Sept. 7. "Numerous other requisitions have been submitted and delayed for unknown reasons," he wrote.
The DYS provided copies of purchase orders for hygiene supplies and clothing from September 2017 and January 2018. On Feb. 12, a spokesperson for the division said the DYS had not been able to locate records related to July and August 2017 requisitions.
Whaley submitted his resignation Nov. 27. Reached by phone, he declined comment. The DYS said he resigned ahead of termination. April Hannah, DYS deputy director for residential operations, said the agency was seeking to institute a "culture shift" at the lockups now under its control.
"A change of leadership at the facilities was necessary because of issues that were repeatedly noted as unsatisfactory and explicit expectations going unmet," Hannah said in an email. "Those issues extended to management of staff, communications with supervisors regarding urgent needs, operational issues that were ineffectively addressed. ... We needed to foster a culture of accountability, communication, and effective management. We felt like different leadership would better support those goals."
Disability Rights Arkansas's Jan. 19, 2018, letter to Guhman, after the nonprofit's December site visit to Dermott, painted a picture of squalid conditions.
DRA noted standing water and a frog in a residential building at the correctional facility. It said a large portion of the cafeteria was also covered with standing water. It described the showers as extremely dirty with mold and mildew. One residential unit lacked hot water; another lacked working heat. Two units had broken glass in their entryways.
At the juvenile treatment center, DRA found a broken freezer, ice-maker and griddle; one nonworking oven and another that had to be propped closed by a chair; a clogged garbage disposal; an industrial fryer that did not work consistently; and a sink leaking hot water. The letter also said that a source at Dermott said some dorms lacked heat.
In a letter in response to DRA, Guhman contested many of the advocacy group's findings and conceded others. She said a plumber had been dispatched to fix the standing water issues. (A DYS spokesperson later told a reporter that a pipe had burst the day of the DRA visit and had been fixed the same day. On a Feb. 12 visit to the treatment center, a reporter observed a large puddle of standing water in the bathroom of one dorm.) Guhman said the griddle and the ovens worked, but the freezer and ice-maker needed to be replaced and delivery was expected by Feb. 9. (The replacement freezer and ice-maker had not arrived by Feb. 12.)
"All the dorms have adequate heat ...," she wrote. "When furnaces did go out in one section of the Juvenile Treatment Center, a repairman was called immediately and repairs made the same day."
But current and former staff said multiple dorms were without heat for long periods earlier this year.
"The heat just got fixed," one staffer at the correctional facility said in a Jan. 29 interview. "When we had that snow and stuff down this way, the kids were complaining because they didn't want to stay in their dorms, because they were cold."
Throughout the summer, K. Knuckles said, when temperatures regularly exceeded 90 degrees, the air-conditioning in the Alpha dorm, where he lived during his stay at the treatment center, did not work.
Former staffer Bynum said the air-conditioning in all five of the dorms at the correctional facility only worked sporadically throughout the summer. Willis, the former direct care staffer at the correctional facility, confirmed Bynum's account.
"We had this one kid, where, he almost fainted in his room from being so hot," Willis said, "so the lady in the cafeteria bought him a fan to plug up ... and put in his room, but he couldn't do it because [a supervisor said it was] a fire hazard. But he threw his fit and [the supervisor] ended up letting him do it. But he was the only kid in the whole dorm room with a fan. So you know how that made the other seven kids feel who didn't have a fan, who had to sweat their asses off at night."
Bynum said during the day, staffers would open the outside doors to let in air, but that also let in mosquitoes.
The doors in multiple cells in the correctional facility were broken and couldn't be locked, current and former staffers said.
"I've noticed that they've been sliding the benches up against the cell doors" to keep them closed, one current staffer said. The worker said some doors were difficult to close, some were hard to open, and keys had been broken in some of the doors. Bynum said keys had broken off in doors, leaving residents trapped inside their rooms for as long as two or three hours.
In Disability Rights Arkansas's Jan. 19 letter, the advocacy group said that staffers had complained of rats in the kitchen. In her response, DYS Director Guhman said that "due to the location of the facility in a rural area surrounded by a field, field mice do get in buildings," but she said a pest contractor would put locked bait boxes in the facilities and surrounding fields. Later, Guhman told a reporter unequivocally that there were no rats at the facilities.
But former correctional facility staffers Bynum and Willis said they regularly saw rats in the cafeteria and that rats would often reach the trays left for guards in the cafeteria before the guards could.
"They would make us trays and sit them on the counter, and by the time we got our trays there would be ... holes in our trays [from the rats]," Willis said. Bynum said staffers found food missing and rat feces on their trays. He said rats were found in the kitchen's flour and sugar supplies. "When they get caught in there, you would think they would dump the whole thing, but they wouldn't," he said. A current staff member said she had seen rats running in and out of clients' cells and that rats in the dining hall were "out of control."
Willis said one of the clients he was monitoring found a roach in his food one day. He said a cafeteria worker was unmoved. "It's just a bug," she told him, according to Willis. Bynum said he had seen a client served a plate with a dead roach on it.
Multiple current and former staffers also said toilets were regularly clogged in the correctional dorms and the showers in several dorms lacked hot water for weeks.
Governor Hutchinson made an unannounced visit to the facilities Jan. 29 after reading the DRA letter. He made a similar visit to the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center early in his administration.
After visiting Dermott, he said, "My impression is that we need to monitor the maintenance of the facility closely. Some of the damage is by the juveniles who are in custody and some of the damage is through ordinary wear and tear. In either circumstance, essential repairs need to be made in a timely fashion. The weather was cold on the day I was there, and I observed the juveniles wearing coats and the buildings were warm. There were previously unnecessary delays in purchasing some items, and the DYS leadership has indicated this problem has been addressed."
Sen. Eddie Cheatham (D-Crossett) and Rep. LeAnne Burch (D-Monticello) also visited the facilities Jan. 29. In an email, Burch said, "[M]y general impression was that the facility for the older juveniles seriously needs immediate attention. It was dreary as a whole, and several areas needed real, concentrated effort for safety and simply for general maintenance." She said she spoke with Guhman after the visit and was assured that DYS was working to make repairs and upgrades. "I'm hoping to see a measured improvement in very short order," Burch said.
Cheatham and Burch also toured the Delta Regional Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction, which is across the street from the juvenile correctional facility and within sight of the treatment center. Prison-managed farmland surrounds both juvenile facilities with little else on the horizon.
Cheatham said he found the adult prison to be nicer than the juvenile facilities.
"It was a world of difference. [The prison] was clean, well-lit, orderly. ... [The juvenile facilities] just need to be cleaned up."
In his Oct. 30 email to top DYS officials, former facility Director Whaley also complained about state-mandated staffing schedules that routinely left him with too few staff to "provide essential safety of all youth." American Correctional Association standards, which the state follows, require one staff member to be present for every eight clients. The juvenile treatment center houses as many as 32 youths ages 13-17 in three dorms. The correctional facility, which contains five dorms or pods made up of locked cells, housed as many as 42 residents ages 18-21 last year until the fall, when the DYS limited the capacity to 40.
Sometime after the state took over the Dermott facilities, it instituted a new schedule that assigned 12 staff members to each facility on shifts Tuesday through Thursday, but assigned only six during shifts Friday through Monday. Six was the fewest number of staff that could meet the ACA-required staff-to-client ratio. According to Whaley's email, staff turnover and absences were common enough that having only six staffers on schedule did not maintain enough cushion to consistently meet the staffing ratio required by ACA standards. Whaley said the schedule left the facility chronically understaffed Friday through Monday.
Multiple current and former staffers said that both Dermott facilities regularly did not adhere to the required 8-to-1 ratio of clients to staff Friday through Monday.
"It was Sundays and Mondays there was no control after first shift," K. Knuckles said of his time at the treatment center. "That's when they're short-staffed, and the staff they got there on that shift don't give a crap about what goes on."
In December, on a Saturday when the 13- to 17-year-old facility was short on staff and one direct care staffer was monitoring a dorm of more than eight clients, one youth sexually assaulted another in the back of the dorm, according to two current staff members. The direct care staff member who was supervising the dorm was playing dominoes with clients and not preventing more than one youth from using the restroom at a time. The staffer was fired. The shift supervisor at the time was suspended for a week without pay for not immediately notifying his supervisor that a possible sexual assault had taken place, according to DYS assistant director Hannah.
In the correctional facility, residents are often confined to locked rooms and direct care staffers are required to do a head count every 15 minutes. Friday through Monday, staffers often would be required to monitor two dorms, each containing as many as eight residents, by sitting in between them, multiple current and former staffers said.
One current employee said being forced to watch two dorms at the same time puts staff in an impossible situation.
"Say, for instance, if I'm sitting out and watching [dorms] Alpha and Bravo. I've got Bravo out for [recreation] — they give them three hours out. If I get up and walk over to Alpha to check those cells, well I've got a fight that's broken out in Bravo because I've left them unattended. Then say, for instance, the three hours go by and I've got a client in Alpha dorm trying to hang himself, well, I'm going to get fired either way. The fight broke out in Bravo: 'You left them unattended.' 'Well, the client in Alpha was trying to hang himself, and you waited a certain amount of time to get up and check him.' It's like you can't win for losing."
During his time at the correctional facility, Bynum said there were two suicide attempts on days when staff did not meet the ACA ratio. Bynum also said one resident opened the broken door of his cell and entered another resident's cell and assaulted him on a day when the facility was understaffed and a direct care staffer was monitoring two dorms.
Before the state takeover of the Dermott facilities, when South Arkansas Youth Services ran the facilities on a contract from the DYS, staffers' schedules rotated every pay period by one day, which kept staffing levels more uniform throughout the week, longtime current and former staff said.
Hannah said the DYS standardized the schedule in the spring of 2017 because all seven of the facilities taken over by the state were doing things differently.
"We based the schedule on ensuring adequate client-staff ratio at all times. With that in mind, there is adequate staff to meet ratio on the weekends. There are additional staff during Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday because of the need to take youth off campus for court hearings, doctor and dental appointments, etc. A staffer must be present with the youth during these off-campus events. There aren't court or medical appointments on the weekend."
She also said that the DYS expected the facility director to find a replacement for any absent staffers to ensure staff met the required ACA-mandated ratio.
In response to specific troubling incidents — including the sexual assault allegation and suicide attempts — when the staff was out of ratio, Hannah said many such instances could have been prevented if staff did their job properly. "People like to throw ratio around as if that is what the contributing factor is, but in a lot of these cases, it wouldn't have mattered if there were 17 extra people there."
"We have terminated a number of staff in relation to incidents," Guhman said. "We have cameras that record everything."
Hannah said the Dermott facilities would move to 12-hour shifts March 11.
In his Oct. 30 email to senior DYS officials, Whaley said he had systematically been denied permission to fill vacancies at the facilities.
"It's simply not true that we would not fill positions," said Amy Webb, a spokeswoman for the division. But DYS officials acknowledged that it had sometimes been difficult to keep the juvenile treatment center fully staffed. Guhman said the starting pay rate for entry-level staff made it difficult to hire people. An entry-level direct care staffer is paid between $10.10 and $11.20 an hour, depending on what time a day the staffer works. Entry-level staffers were paid $8.50 per hour from Jan. 1, 2017, until July 1, when the state fiscal year began.
After the conditions his son endured in Dermott, including living without adequate hygiene supplies and sleeping in a dorm without air-conditioning throughout the summer, Benjamin Knuckles said he didn't see the rehabilitative component of the Dermott lockup.
"That wasn't nothing but just a prison for kids," he said. "It wasn't a treatment facility."
Willis, the former correctional staffer who quit because of stress, said, "That place shouldn't exist, unless it's really gonna become a treatment center, and most of those people that work there shouldn't work there. Because they're not in the right mindset to give anybody treatment."
"We recognize there are problems," Guhman said. "We absolutely do not want these kinds of things to happen. That's not the way we do business. ... I don't want and nobody else wants to work for an agency that allows this kind of stuff. So our job is to put something in place that's going to prevent this."
To that end, the DYS recently established a three-person facility review team that will make monthly inspection reports. The division previously conducted inspections semi-annually. Guhman also said senior DYS staff would be reviewing critical needs at the facilities. When necessary, she said, the agency can use an emergency procurement process to quickly obtain any urgently needed supplies. She said senior staff would be meeting weekly to discuss progress.
In August, Governor Hutchinson and Guhman announced the lockups would be returned to private contractors as soon as the summer of 2018, with a request for proposals to be issued by the end of 2017. But the DYS recently said it would not ask for proposals until early next year, which would mean the youth division would retain control of the lockups until at least July 2019. In the meantime, the DYS said it would commission a study to determine how to better serve the youths committed to its supervision.
Advocates have long pushed the state to close or reduce the number of residential lockups, which they argue are harmful and counterproductive for many youths, and invest more in community-based alternatives. Guhman stopped short of explicitly saying there should be fewer secured beds, but she did say a reassessment was in order.
"Maybe it would be better ... if we had four secure facilities and three less secure — group homes or transition homes or something like that. If you look at our stats, 90 percent of our kids have committed nonviolent offenses ... and yet we're treating them all pretty much the same."
Hutchinson's proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year would keep the DYS' funding flat at $58.1 million. Just like the current fiscal year, $27.6 million would be allotted for residential treatment. The DYS annual per-resident cost at the Dermott treatment center was $52,925 in fiscal year 2016, according to its 2016 annual report, the most recent available. At the correctional facility, it was $54,750.
Disability Rights Arkansas's Masseau said that the Dermott facilities were troubled when they were operated by South Arkansas Youth Services under contract by the state. Disability Rights Arkansas has long relayed concerns about safety, lack of services and "horrible infrastructure" in Dermott, he said. The DYS should have been advocating the legislature for more money to improve conditions, he said.
"At some point we have to put the youth as a priority," Masseau said. "We form these coalitions and boards to look at long-term strategies, which are great. ... But we're doing nothing to address the immediate concerns that we have. That is, we have facilities that are falling apart. Kids are not safe. They're not getting treatment. I think it's time for the legislature to step up and say, 'Do we need to allocate additional resources? Do we need to close them down?' "
Benjamin Hardy also contributed to this article.
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at arknews.org.
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