“I’m impressed with your sincerity, and I’m impressed with the nobility of your goals ... There are problems in the system that are harming families.” RICHARD PITTMAN, Louisiana Public Defender board
Shante Lockett told a state commission Thursday that her teenage son was asleep when someone struck him so hard with a brick at Bridge City Youth Center that his jaw was shattered.
The incident happened in early October and points to what youth advocates say are persistent problems in the state’s secure care facilities more than a decade after Louisiana overhauled its juvenile justice system. The overhaul stemmed from violence — rapes and beatings within juvenile prison walls — that led to federal court oversight.
Seven years after the federal oversight ended, youth advocates complained Thursday that officials need to do a better job of addressing lingering issues that subject juvenile offenders to violence.
State Office of Juvenile Justice Deputy Secretary Mary Livers said during a meeting at the State Capitol that the most challenging offenders end up in secure care facilities. She said problems always will pop up with youths who are mentally ill and do spontaneous things.
“In most cases, it’s sort of deceptive to look at the charge a youth has on record because there is so much plea bargaining that occurs in the system. A lot of offenses plead down from a higher level offense,” she said.
Shaena Johnson, project coordinator at the Juvenile Justice Program of Louisiana, said nonviolent offenders like Lockett’s son do not belong in secure care facilities.
“We’re pleading with you all to listen this time because we want no more of our kids bleeding,” Johnson told the Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission.
Lockett, who lives in Jefferson Parish, and Courtney Scott, of Baton Rouge, shared their stories of receiving calls that their sons’ jaws had been broken at Bridge City Youth Center, which is in Jefferson Parish. Lockett’s son has been released. Scott’s son remains behind bars.
Less than a year ago — after state officials had reported a drop in violent incidents at the facility — three juvenile inmates allegedly punched a guard in the face during a search at Bridge City.
In February 2012, three of the facility’s inmates were arrested after a female employee was groped for roughly an hour in a barricaded dormitory. The center also has grappled with escapes and other attacks in recent years.
Lockett was one of two mothers who complained to officials Thursday, not just about violence but also about a lack of communication when something happens. She and Scott said they struggled to find out details about their hospitalized sons’ conditions.
Lockett said she got a call from the state about her son’s hospitalization but no notification when he underwent surgery. She said it was days before she was allowed to see him.
“This whole situation really has been so traumatizing,” said Lockett, whose 17-year-old son recently came home after serving time for drug offenses.
Scott said her son went from safety and structure at a facility in north Louisiana to fear and a lack of focus at Bridge City. Eventually, she said, his jaw was broken when a group of boys crowded him.
“I really want my son out of there,” Scott told the commission.
After listening to the mothers’ stories, state Sen. Sharon Broome turned to Livers for answers.
“There is evidence that there is room for improvement,” said Broome, D-Baton Rouge.
Livers confirmed that both incidents did occur, characterizing the attack on Lockett’s son as vicious. She said the incidents highlight the extreme challenges facing a system that deals with violent delinquents.
“If we haven’t done a good job keeping families engaged, then we need to do a better job,” she said, offering to assign an aide to gather more information from Lockett and Scott.
The attacks were just one of the issues the commission tackled during an hours-long meeting on juvenile justice issues. Youths’ access to mental health services also was up for discussion.
Last year, the Jindal administration hired Connecticut-based Magellan Health Services to manage mental and addictive disorder services for 150,000 troubled Louisiana children, youth and adults. Magellan is supposed to set up networks of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, addictive disorder clinicians and treatment facilities in every area of the state.
Jody Levison-Johnson, deputy assistant secretary for child and family operations at the state Office of Behavioral Health, said work still is under way to develop some of the providers. She said there are holes and challenges, especially in rural areas with therapeutic group homes. Gaps with access also exist in the Lafayette area, she said.
Still, Levison-Johnson said, she is proud of the program in Louisiana.
Commission members countered that shortfalls within the new system are causing problems for families and health care providers.
One commission member, David Burton, said smaller health care providers are leaving the system because they are not paid in a timely manner.
Richard Pittman, director of juvenile defender services for the Louisiana Public Defender Board, said the feedback he gets while coordinating the defense of parents in child welfare cases indicates that children are being placed in foster care unnecessarily because of gaps in Magellan’s network.
“I’m impressed with your sincerity, and I’m impressed with the nobility of your goals ... There are problems in the system that are harming families,” Pittman said.
Levison-Johnson said that was the first she was hearing of an impact on the foster care system. She said she would have to reach out to other state officials for information.
“We’ll exchange business cards at the end of the meeting,” Pittman said.