Kids in Detention: Four. State Employees to Watch Them? 129

Kids in Detention: Four. State Employees to Watch Them? 129

An upstate juvenile detention facility has 129 employees working -- with some doing overtime -- even though the place is slated to be closed and there are almost no boys remaining who are locked up there.

In fact, the number of boys is down to four.

Why do four troubled kids need so many state employees to watch over them?

Naturally, it's a union issue.

The notorious Tryon Boys Residential Center has been slated for closure next year by Office of Children and Family Services Commissioner Gladys Carrión, who has been closing other detention centers and bringing down the number of young people in state custody.

In 2006, there were 1,500 incarcerated young people; last month Carrión's agency reported just 755. That pace has accelerated since last August, after the Justice Department issued a scathing condemnation of New York's system and threatened a federal takeover. The DOJ report found that staff in four facilities -- including Tryon -- were routinely using excessive force to restrain and abuse young people, leaving them with concussions, broken teeth, and broken bones. (Human Rights Watch said the level of abuse in New York's system was worse than in many third world countries.)

Things were so dire that Carrión specifically asked New York's family court judges to stop sending kids to her facilities, and requested that they only do so if the boys posed a significant risk to public safety. Calling Tryon a "toxic environment" for children, she announced in January that she would be closing the boys' center the following year.

But if the kids are leaving -- and not being replaced by new offenders -- at least at Tryon, the adults whose jobs depend on those facilities being open are staying put. A Pataki-era law passed as a concession to unions mandates that employees of the state's Office of Children and Family Services get one year's notice when a facility is slated to close. That means they keep their jobs in the detention center for a year, even if there aren't any kids to detain.

Carrión described the absurd situation at a Citizens Crime Commission breakfast held in midtown on Wednesday. "This is called a union problem," said the visibly frustrated commissioner. She added that the facility's 129 staff members -- officially known as Youth Division Aides, or YDAs -- are even doing overtime (the agency did not make overtime figures available in time for this story).

She said that before she decided to close the center, she had made a serious effort to retrain Tryon staff to be less violent. But she gave up. "Quite frankly, I just don't think I can change the culture there," adding that the prison still has the state's highest number of restraints and that some staff members were provoking young people to trigger violent behavior, and then reporting that they'd been injured on the job. (The majority of boys held at Tryon have mental health diagnoses, Carrión said.) The commissioner, a former child welfare advocate who says her agency has completely failed children, favors therapeutic models of treatment that get kids' families involved, and keeping kids close to home. For most, home is New York City.

In upstate New York, where prisons are a mainstay of the economy, Carrión is extremely unpopular. "The commissioner's mission is to close the agency down," Adrian Otero, the secretary of Local 559 of the Civil Service Employees Association and a 13-year employee of Tryon, told the Voice. "It's strange that you have the commissioner of an agency who has made it her mission to shut her own agency down." He didn't see the current employee-to-youth-in-custody ratio as a problem, and said that even though there were so many aides and so few kids to watch over, the aides were not at a loss for things to do. Many of them, he said, were assisting at the understaffed girl's facility across the way. "They're going to make this a ghost state if this goes the way it's going," he said. Many staff members would lose their jobs because of the closure, he added.

Otero was fairly candid about the problems at Tryon. He pointed out that many of the kids have serious mental health issues, and those more-troubled youth are being placed side by side with kids who have been locked up for more minor crimes, like truancy. "Every unit should be a mental health unit," he said. "The kids have anxiety, depression, many are bipolar, many are on psychotropic meds. I would never allow any of my children to be put in that type of environment just 'cause they weren't going to school; not if I had a breath of life in my body would I do that."

Tryon earned a reputation as a dangerous place for children in late 2007, when a 15-year-old died of cardiac arrest shortly after being pinned down to the floor by aides. The case was considered a homicide, but the staff members who restrained the young man were never indicted by a grand jury. The facility was also the subject of a January 2010 New York magazine story, "The Lost Boys of Tryon," by Jennifer Gonnerman. In January, there were 49 boys staying there. Gonnerman wrote of Carrión, a longtime child welfare advocate, "When Gladys Carrión, the newly appointed commissioner overseeing the state's juvenile prisons, visited for the first time and found the place [Tryon] so depressing that afterward she sat in her car in the parking lot and cried."

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