As of Friday, 68 days since the state shuttered schools, there were still about 230 children and teens imprisoned in West Virginia’s 10 juvenile detention centers.
And there have been just three tests for COVID-19 in all these facilities combined in that time, according to state-provided figures. Two turned up negative and one is pending.
These 10 in-state detention centers don’t include the out-of-state residential facilities where, as previously reported, children have tested positive.
When asked why there hasn’t been more testing, Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, which includes these detention centers, pointed to a lack of symptoms among the children. People can carry the virus, though, without showing symptoms.
Messina also pointed to comments at Gov. Jim Justice’s news conferences. His department didn’t provide an interview with a juvenile justice official for this report, despite multiple requests.
On April 28, Justice said West Virginia was moving toward testing more in “confined-type areas” such as prisons; state COVID-19 czar Dr. Clay Marsh said, “we are absolutely looking at prioritizing the congregate populations;” and State Health Officer Dr. Cathy Slemp talked about the need for an “ongoing surveillance strategy.”
But this testing largely hasn’t materialized in prisons, especially juvenile detention centers.
On that same April day, Justice general counsel Brian Abraham said that, with limited testing available, “why would we single out our jail facilities, and give everybody tests whether they exhibit any symptoms or not?”
Twenty-three children were in quarantine as of Friday afternoon, although the state says none of these children were showing symptoms. A state report says they were “separated because they are new intakes, back from a hospital for unrelated reasons, etc.”
The West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy think tank has called for testing for everyone in these facilities — adults and children, staff members and their families. The organization previously pointed out the low test rate.
Seth DiStefano, policy outreach director for the think tank, wrote in a blog post this week that testing should be “comprehensive and periodic.”
“Such action, combined with lowering incarceration rates in general, is critical to avoiding outbreaks in our jails, prisons and communities as a whole,” he wrote.
The number of children in these detention centers has decreased from 260 on March 16, when schools shut down and Justice declared a state of emergency, Messina said. That’s about a 12% drop.
Messina said that, of the remaining 230 children, 56% are in for violent or sexual offenses. But he also said 28% are in for “court requirement violations,” such as probation violations, 13% are in for property crimes and 4% are in for drug offenses, which can include public intoxication.
The coronavirus already has spread through adult prisons in other states, and testing has begun to show that it’s now in West Virginia adult prisons and jails.
The 10 detention centers under the state Division of Juvenile Services are only for youths who are being held for allegations of, or have been convicted of, offenses that are crimes for adults. They can’t be sent to these prison-like facilities for “status offenses,” such as truancy and running away.
The only tests in these facilities have been at the Gene Spadaro Juvenile Center, where two tests came back negative, and at the Ronald C. Mulholland Juvenile Center, where the sole test is pending.
You can monitor the numbers for updates at dhhr.wv.gov/COVID-19/Pages/Correctional-Facilities.aspx.
Messina wrote in an email that the treatment team at each of the facilities “communicates daily with probation officers, prosecutors, attorneys, DHHR staff and others who might have an impact on a youth being released.”
He wrote that many of the children in the detention centers, under the Division of Juvenile Services, are safer there.
“Ultimately, only the court with jurisdiction over a particular youth has the authority to enter an order releasing him or her from detention,” Messina wrote. “The courts review each case with a juvenile in custody every 90 days to determine what is in the youth’s best interest.”
He wrote that the Division of Juvenile Services and its adult counterpart “continue to work with courts across the state so only those youth whose situations warrant detention” are put in their custody.
Cindy Largent-Hill, who directs the state judicial branch’s Division of Children and Juvenile Services, said earlier this month that there was a “robust” review of the kids in these detention centers.
“The most important thing we had to look at was: Where would that child go and would that environment be safe?” Largent-Hill said.
She noted there are multiple factors decision makers must consider, including whether the child has an adult guardian to return to and whether leaving their current facility would disrupt their education or therapy.
“It’s not as simple as evaluating public safety risk, as you do with adults,” she said. “You have to consider three or four other pretty critical factors.”
Allen Barry, a deputy public defender in Kanawha County, represents children — mostly in Department of Health and Human Resources custody, rather than the detention centers. He said children who do go into those detention centers are being quarantined for 14 days.
While he said he couldn’t put a percentage on it, Barry said, “I’ve definitely noticed that I’ve had judges let some of my clients go early from their placement, from detention, that sort of thing — probably more often than would be normal.
“Sometimes they agree with me and sometimes they don’t,” he said, “but I definitely think they are listening to the argument that ‘Hey, we should err on the side of not institutionalizing as many people as possible when we’ve got a highly transmissible disease that we’re all fighting against.’ ”
Kanawha Circuit Court Judge Joanna Tabit said she has released several children amid the pandemic — although she didn’t recall any of them being in the detention centers.
“I have worked with the public defenders, as well as the assistant prosecutors handling those cases, to look at our specific cases to see if there are individuals who have been doing well that we can transition back early,” Tabit said.
She said children progressing educationally, therapeutically and behaviorally could be candidates for release.
Keigan Aabel-Brown — who, among other things, aids Cabell County children who face drug offenses — said West Virginia was failing, even before COVID-19, to fix a system that punishes minors who struggle with things like unstable housing and parents with substance use disorder.
“What we’re really doing,” he said, “is using our prison system — our residential facilities — to house our kids with mental health issues.”