Suit over juvenile homes may be near end
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With a settlement in sight, the judge presiding over a lawsuit that resulted in the closure of two state juvenile homes wants attorneys to consider how future problems might be dealt with after the case is closed.
"I'd like you guys to think of the monitoring that's going to take place after," Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn told lawyers in the case at a Tuesday hearing. "What's the mechanism we would use to somehow keep everybody apprised of what's going on, as far as, let's say, a severe problem that arises and it needs to be addressed by the court somehow?"
The judge said he was reluctant to completely dismiss the case, because of the time it might take to address any similar problems. The state Supreme Court might have to appoint another special judge, as they did in the current case, he said.
"I don't know how to dismiss the case, but have it available if there needs to be some reason to come back up and take care of an issue," the judge said,
"If a serious issue needs to be addressed is there a mechanism we can put in place to say, let's take care of it that way to continue the jurisdiction of the court, but on a very limited basis?" Aboulhosn asked.
Earlier this year, after hearing about ongoing safety problems, including multiple allegations of sexual assault, Aboulhosn ordered both the Industrial Home for Youth and the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center in Salem closed. The allegations arose after Mountain State Justice, a public-interest law firm based in Charleston, filed lawsuits on behalf of juvenile inmates.
During Tuesday's hearing, Aboulhosn heard from three juveniles who have been relocated to different facilities since the closure of the two in Salem about those issues.
Dan Hedges, an attorney with Mountain State Justice, raised concerns about the lack of post-graduate education opportunities at some of the facilities.
But Fran Warsing, the state Department of Education's director of institutional education, said some teachers have already been hired and the interview process is ongoing to begin vocational and college-ready classes at facilities that are lacking the post-graduate courses.
Even with the issues that remain with the state Division of Juvenile Services, Lydia Milnes, an attorney with Mountain State Justice, said there have been many positive changes since the lawsuit was filed.
"The case has been a big success," she said. "Many of the original problems have been resolved."
Paul DeMuro, an expert on the juvenile justice system, told the judge about his evaluation of the Sam Perdue Treatment Center in Mercer County. That's where juvenile sex offenders from the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center were moved.
DeMuro complimented the department on their transparency and the transition, but highlighted a statewide problem: how little correctional officers are paid.
He said the low pay must result in a hiring and retention problem, because staff can leave for surrounding states for a higher salary.
But the attorneys agreed that's a problem for state lawmakers to fix.
Marty Wright, an attorney for the state, said staff and juveniles would benefit when the lawsuit concludes. Wright said some staff has noticed juveniles are acting untouchable with numerous rule changes since the lawsuit began.
"It's time to start bringing some finality and let the division implement the programs they're trying to put in place," he said.
Reach Kate White at email@example.com or 304-348-1723.