News Report • Susan Ferriss, The Center for Public Integrity
Minors with mental health problems and other disabilities are held in “unconscionable conditions” of 23-hour solitary confinement and deliberately cut off from education and other rehabilitation at a San Francisco Bay Area juvenile hall, alleges a lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court in Northern California.
The class-action suit against Contra Costa County probation and county school officials accuses them of locking young wards in small cells for days at a time in response to behavior stemming from the children’s own disabilities — including bipolar disorder — and then illegally depriving them of education as part of a three-tier system of isolation.
The two most severe tiers of isolation imposed on wards are called “risk” and “max,” requiring 23-hour confinement in cells, when “youth with disabilities are outright denied both general and special education entirely,” according to the suit.
The first tier, called “program,” results in up to 22 ½ hours of solitary confinement, during which, the suit says, the county’s policies illegally permit probation (officials) to withhold education as a punishment or for no reason at all.”
Among the suit’s allegations:
A 14-year-old girl identified as G.F. was put into solitary in a cell for approximately 100 days over the last year, with no education services and short breaks outside only two times a day. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention deficit, the girl was removed from the juvenile hall county school and put into solitary, with officials failing to conduct a mandatory inquiry into whether her behavior was related to her disability.
W.B. a 17-year-old boy — already found mentally incompetent by a juvenile court — was put into solitary for more than two months out of a four-month period. He began hearing voices, talking to himself, thought he was being poisoned and broke down into a psychotic episode and was hospitalized for three weeks before being returned to the hall.
Q.G., 17, has been in full-time special education since third grade and has diagnosed behavior problems. Before entering juvenile hall, he was on a special education plan with specific daily behavior intervention services. After becoming a ward, he was put into general education classes and his behavior plan eliminated and he was marked “absent” from classes when put into solitary 30 times. “While in solitary confinement, Q.G. is denied the opportunity to go to school and receives zero credits for the time he has missed,” the suit says.
The lawsuit was filed by a national pro bono law firm, Public Counsel, and Berkeley, Calif.-based Disability Rights Advocates and the San Paul Hastings private law firm in San Francisco. Lawyers filing the suit say they have corresponded with probation and other officials about conditions. They said county officials declined to meet with them, but contended in correspondence that there were security reasons for confining wards in cells. Officials did not address arguments, lawyers said, that they were legally bound to provide education services and proper assessment of special needs and behavior problems.
Contra Costa County Probation Officer Philip Kader was out of the office until next week, officials at his office said, and they declined to comment. Kader is named in the suit, along with the Contra Costa County Office of Education, which supervises education at the hall.
Peggy Mashburn, chief communications officers at the Contra Costa Office of Education — which is also named as a defendant — said that the office had no comment Thursday because it is still reviewing the lawsuit.
Public Counsel lawyer Laura Faer called the policies inside Contra Coast’s juvenile hall — located in the city of Martinez — “broken and draconian.” She said conditions resemble “maximum-security-like” prisons rather than what state and federal law dictate for conditions inside juvenile and treatment for children with disabilities.
“Contra Costa is failing in its actual legal mission to rehabilitate children,” Faer told reporters. Officials are in “100 percent violation” of laws requiring assessment of students and special-education services.
Wards “are routinely locked for days and weeks at a time in cells that have barely enough room for a bed and only a narrow window the size of a hand,” she said. “In these cells, they are unlawfully denied education and special education and contact with teachers and other students. They are denied textbooks and instructional materials.”
She said 14-year-old plaintiff G.F. has received additional punishment for peering outside her cell while in solitary.
Faer told the Center for Public Integrity that isolation, lasting days, not just hours, can stem from physical fights, but also from defiant comments or refusal to follow staff orders — all behavior that frequently stems directly from a ward’s mental health problems or disability. The law requires officials to assess whether poor behavior stems from a disability, and create a plan that specifically address that.
Mary-Lee Smith, attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, said “it is abhorrent” to confine students with disabilities. The system in Contra Costa, she said, is used “without regard to whether the behavior leading to solitary was related to disability. It does so without even inquiring into whether the child has a disability that may be worsened in solitary confinement.”
The county school at the Martinez juvenile hall enrolls about 1,300 students a year, the lawyers said. The hall’s own records show that at least one-third of the wards have disabilities requiring special education services.
The suit notes that California law declares that juvenile halls exist solely for rehabilitation, and “shall not be deemed to be, not treated as, a penal institution” but rather “a safe and supportive homelike environment.”
Instead, inside the Contra Costa hall, the suit alleges: “Young people with disabilities become trapped in a cruel cycle of discrimination” and “are locked away in solitary confinement where their conditions only deteriorate and they fall further behind in their education.”
Faer said juvenile detention officials are required to create “pro-active, positive rehabilitation plans” for wards, but records obtained and reviewed by lawyers indicate that hall and school officials are failing in that duty.
“These are kids. We have a chance here to help them,” Faer said. “But they are pretty much stealing children’s futures.”
Based on a review of the Martinez hall’s policies, the lawsuit says, wards put into solitary for 23 hours are “outright denied both general and special education entirely.”
The use of solitary confinement in California’s state and county juvenile detention centers has prompted repeated attempts by some legislators to impose regulations barring lengthy isolation beyond relatively short periods and frequent staff observation of youths in cells.
A bill along those lines currently pending in California’s state legislature is sponsored by state Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat. It passed the state Senate, and is now before Assembly members, who have adopted some amendments.
The Center of Public Integrity reported on how a previous unsuccessful attempt by Yee to pass a similar bill was met with stiff opposition from law enforcement officials and prison guards who contribute heavily to legislators’ political campaigns