John Ellem: We must protect youth in justice system from COVID-19 (Opinion)

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More than 1.9 million cases of the coronavirus have been reported across the country and more than 112,000 Americans have died as a result.

Here in West Virginia, we’ve lost 86 of our citizens, with more than 2,000 cases reported. That it is why our government officials are working diligently to do everything they can to flatten the curve, open the state up and decrease the spread of the disease among our fellow West Virginians. As we work to confront the worst public health crisis in our lifetime, it is important that we prioritize protecting our most vulnerable citizens, especially our children.

When I served in the House of Delegates as the former minority chair of the Judiciary Committee, I worked to end life without parole sentences for children and made sure we focused on rehabilitating and reintegrating our young people back into society when they went astray.

We know from the data that the children who end up in our justice system are often our most vulnerable citizens, having experienced high rates of early childhood trauma, along with many other experiences no child should have to endure. Studies have shown that about 90% of children in the juvenile justice system have experienced at least two prior childhood traumas, which include anything from physical or sexual abuse to having an incarcerated parent or living with a family member who is addicted to drugs or alcohol.

This history of trauma, coupled with the fact that youth in the justice system have significantly higher rates of health disorders, including asthma, pneumonia, hypertension and diabetes, make them particularly vulnerable to developing complications from COVID-19.

As most of us continue to practice social distancing to slow the spread of the disease, the children in our justice system are unable to do the same, putting them and the people who work with them at higher risk for infection.

Unfortunately, no one is immune and, last month, a 15-year-old child in neighboring Maryland died from the coronavirus. Reports are surfacing from across the country of confirmed outbreaks in prisons and youth detention facilities which can easily become petri dishes for the corona virus. To date, more than 560 children in juvenile detention facilities across the country have tested positive, as well as 653 other adults who work in those institutions.

Frighteningly, four West Virginia children who were in state custody and placed in institutions outside the state have tested positive for COVID-19, highlighting the threat the virus poses to children in our care.

We have an obligation as a state to protect the human rights of our children. Perhaps at no other time in our history has that sentiment been more important than right now.

Across the state, there are at least 229 children in our juvenile justice facilities whose health and well-being is our responsibility. That is why we are urging the Division of Children and Juvenile Services and the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation to prioritize these children in their response to COVID-19. While we have to balance public safety considerations with public health, we must also act with the best interests of our children in mind.

Child rights organizations, such as Human Rights for Kids, where I am a founding board member, have been urging states to safely release as many children from detention facilities as practicable. We recognize that not every child in state custody can be released. However, The DCJS and the juvenile courts should review cases of youths who can be safely returned to their homes to shelter in place with their families. This should include youth who are low risk, youth detained for nonviolent crimes or youth with close release dates. During this time, we should seek to decrease the number of new admissions.

Further, we cannot allow this crisis to erode the rights of our children or use it as a blank check to place kids in solitary confinement or prevent family contact, as has happened in other states. We must ensure that video and telephone visitation remain in place for children to communicate regularly with their families and attorneys throughout the duration of this crisis. So, we’re also urging the DCJS and DCR to have COVID-19 response plans in place specifically for children in state custody to maintain their safety and safeguard their rights.

Nelson Mandela once said, “There is no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” How we respond in this crisis to the treatment of the children in our care will reveal a great deal about the character of our great state.

John Ellem, of Parkersburg, is a former member of the West Virginia House of Delegates and a board member of the nonprofit Human Rights for Kids, based in Washington, D.C.

Funerals for Sunday, July 5, 2020

Canterbury, Kimberly - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

Green, Della - 2 p.m., Evans Funeral Home, Chapmanville.

Miller, Brinley - 2 p.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Rogers, Robert - 2 p.m., Wallace Funeral Home, Milton.

Starkey, Roger - 2 p.m., Clover Cemetery, Clover.