Foster Children Jailed Beyond Terms for Petty Crimes
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
An investigation into New Jersey's juvenile jails found foster children languished there long beyond their sentence. That's because the state has nowhere else to put them. New Jersey is under court order to get those children out of jail and into a home or a mental health program, but a July 1st deadline has passed and some foster children are still there. New Jersey's child advocate is touring the county jails to find just how many of those children are still locked up. Nancy Solomon reports.
(Soundbite of footsteps, door opening)
Unidentified Man: Where's Mr. Ryan?
Mr. KEVIN RYAN (Child Advocate): I'm here.
NANCY SOLOMON reporting:
Kevin Ryan has come to the heavily guarded jail for children in Newark to look for a particular kind of kid. As the child advocate, he's most concerned with kids who have been ordered by a judge to receive mental health services rather than a prison sentence.
(Soundbite of door opening)
Unidentified Man: OK. We'll take you off to the director's office.
Mr. RYAN: OK, thanks.
(Soundbite of alarm)
SOLOMON: Ryan is ushered through metal detectors and a series of locked doors into the office of Ron Salahuddin. He's the director of the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center.
Mr. RYAN: How many kids would you say today roughly are waiting for a placement, a DHS child welfare mental health placement?
Mr. RON SALAHUDDIN (Director, Essex County Juvenile Detention Center): I would say maybe 15, 16 that are waiting for placement.
SOLOMON: It's not for a lack of foster families that these kids wait, but a slow-moving bureaucracy and a shortage of programs for kids who've gotten into trouble but don't belong in jail. Salahuddin is aggravated that so many kids spend months in his jail while their cases are shuttled through a system that requires coordination of the courts, the schools and the state child welfare agency.
Mr. SALAHUDDIN: Why in the world should a 12-year-old be in this facility with murderers, rapists, child molesters, carjackers, armed robbers because he was in a stolen car? He's 12. He shouldn't be here.
SOLOMON: Ryan wants to meet these kids, and they run the gamut from some who have gotten into a bit of trouble and need a program that might set them on a new path, to kids with serious mental health needs. First up is a 14-year-old boy from Newark who was arrested for receiving stolen property. NPR agreed not to broadcast the names of the children as a condition of being allowed to record the visits.
Mr. SALAHUDDIN: This is Kevin Ryan. He's a child advocate. Let me tell you what a child advocate does.
SOLOMON: Ryan sits close to the boy, who is African-American, small for his age, and has his nickname tattooed on his arm. The kid purses his lips tight over his teeth as if he's trying to hold back an ocean of sadness. Ryan asks him about his case worker from the state agency for children, known here as DYFS.
Unidentified Child #1: My case worker said he'd come in and see me. He ain't never come in and see me.
Mr. RYAN: How long have you been in here?
Unidentified Child #1: I been in here, like, two or three months. He never came, so...
SOLOMON: He says the only time he has seen his DYFS worker is in court, but there's never an opportunity to talk. A judge ordered the boy be placed in a mental health program, but Ryan is surprised to hear he refused to go.
Mr. RYAN: You'd rather stay here than go to South Carolina? How come?
Unidentified Child #1: Because I get more visits in here with--my sister come to see me--than over there in South Carolina.
Mr. RYAN: So what do you think's gonna happen?
Unidentified Child #1: I don't know.
SOLOMON: By the end of the conversation, the blood has drained from Ryan's freckled, normally rosy face, and his mood has darkened.
Mr. RYAN: It's heartbreaking that this kid, right, could be out of here but doesn't want to be away from his family. But since when are the options for kids in a civilized society: move hundreds of miles away from your family to get well, or stay in jail? That's not right. That's immoral, and this system has got to turn away from that.
SOLOMON: New Jersey officials admit the state missed its court-imposed deadline to clear the juvenile jails of kids waiting for mental health placements. Kathi Way, a respected veteran of many state and federal child welfare agencies, was hired to lead a wide-sweeping reform of New Jersey's system. She says a lot of progress has been made and the agency just needs a few more months to get the changes in place.
Ms. KATHI WAY (Child Advocate): There are a small number of children. For him it is difficult to find an appropriate placement, and we anticipate that in the very near future, 60 days or so, that we will have sufficient capacity to accommodate the needs of the children who are waiting.
SOLOMON: A court-appointed panel will decide whether the state merely needs a little more time or whether its plan is just not working. Steven Cohen of the Annie E. Casey Foundation is chairman of the panel. He says the problem isn't so much about needing more beds as it is about improving the way state workers do their jobs. He says kids must move more quickly through the justice system to a residential program and back into families, either their own or foster care. Even though New Jersey is undergoing a five-year reform, Cohen says, the state must prioritize the kids sitting in jail.
Mr. STEVEN COHEN (Annie E. Casey Foundation): This problem is a small enough number of kids with a dramatic enough risk to their well-being that it can and should be solved in the short run.
SOLOMON: Getting kids out of jail immediately is precisely what the child advocate, Kevin Ryan, wants to see. In the Newark jail, he meets a 13-year-old boy arrested for riding in a stolen car, who was rejected by two mental health programs. He's just learned a third facility has accepted him.
Mr. RYAN: You've been here for--What?--six months, seven months? When did they first tell you that you're gonna go to a program?
Unidentified Child #2: December the 18th.
Mr. RYAN: And who told you that you were gonna go to a program that day?
Unidentified Child #2: My judge.
Mr. RYAN: Judge told you that?
Unidentified Child #2: Mm-hmm.
Mr. RYAN: What took so long?
Unidentified Child #2: It's 'cause they was finding placements, and I never had got in through until, like, I been here for, like, four months.
SOLOMON: The boy is sweet-faced and seems shy, biting his lip and tapping his fingers on the table. He'll now be going to a program in New Jersey for one year.
Mr. RYAN: And then what?
Unidentified Child #2: Then I get to go home.
Mr. RYAN: And not come back here again?
Unidentified Child #2: Hmm-mm.
Mr. RYAN: What was the worst part of being here? Just lack of freedom?
Unidentified Child #2: Couldn't see my family or nothing.
Mr. RYAN: Mm-hmm. All right. Thank you.
SOLOMON: As the boy heads back to his cell, once again Ryan looks emotionally spent.
Mr. RYAN: You don't have to look very far, do you? Like first kid, no programs in New Jersey. South Carolina or jail. And the second kid, six and a half months, seven months in jail, four months before I even went on a program interview, and I'm getting out Friday. This is not a complicated story to tell, but infuriating in its failure to be solved by now.
SOLOMON: This is only the first jail visit. There are 17 county detention centers in New Jersey, and Ryan is visiting many of them in these next few weeks. So far his office has used its powers to issue subpoenas, hold public hearings and publish reports. As he winds his way back through the metal detectors and past the 12-foot-high electric fence, he says there's one power left in his arsenal that he hasn't tried. New Jersey may soon be facing yet another class-action lawsuit on behalf of its poorest and most troubled kids.
(Soundbite of door closing)
SOLOMON: For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.
WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.
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