Free Juvenile Delinquents Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, Suit Asks

Kathleen Culliton

This article originally appeared on the New York City Patch

NEW YORK CITY — New York City's juvenile delinquents are kept in facilities ill-equipped to protect them from the new coronavirus as the death toll mounts and the virus spreads through Rikers Island, according to a new lawsuit.

Legal Aid filed suit against New York City's Administration for Children's Services Wednesday requesting the immediate release of 22 teens, ages 13 through 17, held on Family Court charges, records show.

The public defenders accuse ACS of shirking its responsibility to protect the teens by continuing to admit staff and new detainees while failing to provide ample sanitation supplies, according to court records.

"Detention facilities confine the youth in close quarters with shared living spaces and common gathering areas," the suit reads.

"[Facilities] experience constant turnover of detained youth and staff, making them breeding grounds for infection and transmission of COVID-19."

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ACS declined to comment on the suit, but noted it has already seen three cases of COVID-19 at the Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx.

"We have cleaned and sanitized all surfaces, implemented social distancing strategies, continue to ensure youth have access to medical staff at all times should they feel sick," said spokesperson Chanel Caraway in an email.

"The safety & health of everyone in our facilities remains our number one priority.”

In the wake of the pandemic, ACS has halted in-person visitation, implemented distance learning, begun isolating sick detainees, and asked staff feeling sick to stay home, the agency stated.

But Legal Aid argues the design of Crossroad Juvenile Center — the Brownsville secure facility where 62 teens share sinks, toilets and dining tables — makes it impossible to implement social distancing.

"Due to the virus, school is not being held in separate classrooms, but only 'remotely,” the lawsuit notes. "As a result, youth are spending the majority of their days together in their housing unit’s common area."

The suit also notes that people with poor health are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and more likely to suffer severe symptoms, and that juvenile detainees are more likely to suffer from asthma and other health issues linked to poverty.

The City's Law Department responded to Patch' request for comment with a statement from spokesperson Nicholas Paolucci.

“We’ll have to review the particulars of the lawsuit and respond accordingly," Paolucci said. "Health and safety is a priority of the city at this time.”

Legal Aid's demands echo the recommendations of Columbia University Justice Lab's Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice, which called for releasing detainees with safe homes, those medically vulnerable and those with a release date in 90 days.

Vidhya Ananthakrishnan, Director of Youth Justice, told Patch it was a question of mental as much as physical health, as the enforced separation from family members could be detrimental to young people who've experienced extreme trauma.

"It’s really critical to have caring adults in regular contact," said Ananthakrishnan. "Kids are being isolated and that’s not great for their development."

Ananthakrishnan applauded ACS for its COVID-19 safety measures in a difficult situation — "They’re doing the best they can," she said — but noted the extreme situation only highlighted a deeper problem.

"It’s so important to be focused on these vulnerable young people," she said. "These are kids who already get the short side of the stick."

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday evening that incarcerated people under the age of 18 were not his primary concern.

"This is something we're going to come back to," de Blasio said at news conference. "We don't have that plan ready to announce yet."

Legal Aid's suit, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, requests the immediate release of the 22 teens.

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