‘We Failed Him’: Caught in the Revolving Door of Juvenile Detention | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

‘We Failed Him’: Caught in the Revolving Door of Juvenile Detention

Yvette Mason, holding a picture of her late son Charles McDonald, said she hopes that telling his story will prevent others from experiencing her pain by highlighting the lack of resources available to families of troubled youth in Hinds County and Mississippi. Juvenile detention failed him, she and others say.

Yvette Mason, holding a picture of her late son Charles McDonald, said she hopes that telling his story will prevent others from experiencing her pain by highlighting the lack of resources available to families of troubled youth in Hinds County and Mississippi. Juvenile detention failed him, she and others say. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

Yvette Mason lives a mother's nightmare.

On June 21, 2016, she drove her 17-year-old son Charles McDonald to the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center, where he had been eight times since his 13th birthday, most recently after failing a drug test for PCP and pot. He was acting erratically and jumpy, fidgeting and crying as they approached Henley-Young, which sits on a steep hill south of Jackson on McDowell Road.

McDonald had called the detention center that morning asking for help, Mason said. So she picked him up from a friend's house to take him there.

When they arrived, the mother called for the staff to come assist her. Her son jumped out of her car and bolted down the sharp incline of the hill to the parking lot of the business that sits at the bottom, Performance Oil.

In the tiny, gravel lot, McDonald stopped by a gray Lexus parked parallel to the front of the white, squat building with narrow windows. Then the disraught teenager began to beat on the car's windows with his red Nike slides.

His mother sped down the hill in her car, pulling up in front as an older man stepped out from the side door, armed, less than 10 feet from the boy. The man and the boy tussled, and a shot rang out. Mason stepped from her car, and saw her child sprawled in the grave parking lot, bleeding, shot in the chest.

"I never heard a warning shot," Mason says now.

Today, five months later, she can still see the eyes of the youngest of her two children. They stare straight ahead, not moving. She lives that moment again and again. She goes to therapy but refuses to take her medicine, worried about the potential for side effects. She wonders if there are groups she can go to for victims of gun violence. She prays.

Mason created a shrine of sorts to her son in the living room of the small, one-room apartment into which she moved since the shooting, downsizing now that she is living alone. She hopes to move into a house soon, with a room for all of his things.

McDonald's previous trips to Henley-Young involved auto burglary and drug-court violations, and Mason isn't sure if he had anything in his system the day he died. She said he had tested positive in the past for PCP and marijuana, both drugs that can cause paranoia and hallucinations.

Maybe that was why he ran down the hill, maybe that was the reason he was beating on the car windows, but he is still dead, regardless. His mother wonders, of course, what she could have done differently, sometimes spending her days feeling numb.

She also wonders what the city and county might have done differently to help her son, who was in and out of the detention center eight times without the help he clearly needed, not end up dead less than a hundred yards from the front door of the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center.

"He wanted to get help," Mason said. "He was calling that day to get help."

A Repeated Exercise

Charles McDonald began his relationship with the legal system when he was 13, the result of hanging around older boys who his mother believed were involved with illegal activities.

The police soon picked McDonald up in connection with an auto break-in. She said he refused to give up any names, and so he ended up at Henley-Young.

"And then he tested positive for marijuana and that's when the first drug-court sessions started," Mason said. After that, he was caught in the detention cycle.

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Charles McDonald, 17, died from gunshot wounds after running down the hill from Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center in June. Photo courtesy Yvette Mason

Records for juveniles, especially ones entangled within the justice system, are notoriously difficult to obtain. Mississippi law prohibits the youth-court system from sharing or publicly hearing any issue relating to a minor. On top of that, federal guidelines protecting personal health and educational records also prohibit those involved with the process such as the administrators and the counselors from sharing any personal information.

For these reasons, most information about the ground-level experience of facilities like Henley-Young comes from the narrative of family members and former youth offenders.

The research for Jackson shows that the number of kids who will eventually end up in the adult correctional system is a more manageable number than one might expect. The Mississippi attorney general's office hired BOTEC, a national research firm, to investigate the sources of crime in Jackson, using funds the Mississippi Legislature allocated. BOTEC released its report early this year.

"Of the 30,000 students currently enrolled in Jackson Public Schools, according to these data, we can predict that approximately 5 percent, or 1,500 students, will, at some point, get arrested by the Jackson Police Department or Hinds County Sheriff's Office," the report states, adding that "2.2 percent, or 660, will be arrested for a serious crime such as a drug charge, aggravated assault, robbery, weapons offense, kidnapping, abuse and neglect, and burglary; 0.44 percent, or 132 will be arrested for a very serious crime such as murder, manslaughter or rape."

The statistics break down further, highlighting the rate at which high-school populations matriculate into the correctional system. For Provine High School, which McDonald had attended sporadically, 10.9 percent of the students are likely to enter the adult correctional system, with 6.3 percent of that group charged with a serious offense and 0.97 percent with a very serious offense.

Mason said detention was a repeated exercise for her son, with eight trips to Henley-Young. McDonald also visited other longer-stay facilities but never for long-term mental-health or substance-abuse treatment. Mason said that before his death, his counselor at Henley-Young and his family had tried to secure him a place at a long-term treatment facility near Memphis but to no avail.

"He'd been to Sunflower Landing, to Brentwood," Mason said of facilities that offer mental-health and trauma treatment to young people.

"He's been to the place in Meridian, Region 8, and they were in the process of trying to get him to Diamond Grove in Louisville, Mississippi."

The youth court sends juveniles who need mental-health treatment, including for substance abuse, to one of several state institutions, including the ones McDonald visited. However, his relatives were not sure whether any mental-health experts developed a treatment plan for him.

"I don't think they ever did a treatment program on him in Jackson," Cotten Taylor, a close family associate, said. "It's a need."

If juveniles in the Hinds County youth-court system, whose families tend to have limited resources, cannot get help at the juvenile-justice center, they do not have many other options. But, thanks to a lawsuit on behalf of the juveniles in the facility, the county is starting to address the lack of mental-health services in Henley-Young.

The changes come too late to help Charles McDonald, however.

System Failure

Several interest groups, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and Disability Rights Mississippi, sued the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center in 2012 on behalf of unnamed juveniles, petitioning the court to help create more humane conditions and practices. As a result, and after years of legal back-and-forth, the facility continues to alter its practices. It has recently re-allocated monies to Henley-Young to create a mental-health staff, including professionals and case managers.

Johnnie McDaniels, executive director of the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center, readily admits that the facility should have offered McDonald more help.

"There just should be other options available to Charles as opposed to repeated detention in Henley-Young," McDaniels said. "That didn't really help him a lot. And just being released and coming back but never transferred to some sort of long-term rehabilitative situation, which I thought was detrimental to Charles."

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Charles McDonald, 17, died in the parking lot of Performance Oil, which is down the hill from the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center and less than a hundred yards from the facility’s front door.

Even though McDonald started with Henley-Young when he was 13, the court sent him to a few other facilities for short periods of time, McDaniels said, but never assigned him long-term help. "The rest of the time was repeated detention at Henley-Young," McDaniels said.

While McDonald would go into the detention center for 89-day stays, the county and the groups that sued reached an agreement this year to keep youth people in the facility for no longer than 21 days. The limit was an evidence-based policy change that the youth-court judge, William Skinner, fought unsuccessfully in court. McDaniels said he used McDonald's story to illustrate to Judge Skinner that the detention-based approach to juvenile justice is not effective.

"Charles was one of the kids I used as an example of a kid who was in an 89-day program since the time he was 13 to the time of his unfortunate death, and he never got any kind of rehabilitative services from anywhere," McDaniels said. "We failed him. The system failed that kid. I believe that."

McDaniels said other options for children facing youth court include programs like drug court, but he said he was not sure how that program affects the kids, except for sending them back to Henley-Young for new reasons.

"Kids are kind of told, you are in drug court," McDaniels said, "and that seems like it. There's no real follow-through, no real programming."

"And when he comes back with a positive drug screen for his weekly drug test, he is put back in detention for 89 days. I don't know what the programming piece of that is."

"Charles is one of those kids that should have been in a facility like Oakley where he could have been somewhere long-term," McDaniels said.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services operates the Oakley Youth Development Center in Raymond, which serves as the sole long-term juvenile correctional facility in Mississippi.

McDaniels said one of the reasons McDonald was never transferred to a facility like Oakley was because he was never charged, or adjudicated, of the felony-level crimes, a requirement for placement there. Even the pattern of non-adjudication limbo was not unusual in Mississippi.

"That's pretty common. It's not necessarily just the court," McDaniels said.

The pattern can repeat until these children reach adulthood, bouncing in and out of youth court and the detention center until their 18th birthday when they enter the more consequential and public adult correctional system. Without intervention, the children who enter the juvenile-justice system can slip right into a life of offense—the BOTEC report warns that contact with the criminal-justice system is one of two top indicators (the other is school absence/dropping out) of whether a young person will commit worse crime later.

"Putting him in Henley-Young every time he committed an offense because he is on probation and never dealing with the underlying issues was a failure. And there are other kids out there" that face the same pattern, McDaniels said.

For McDonald, the underlying issues were not only his relationship with substances.

"I would ask him, 'Charles, why do you repeatedly steal?' and on one occasion, he said that he was trying to take care of his child," McDaniels said. "You just think about that, a 17-year-old that's struggling with the system himself, trying to take care of a child."

'No Treatment Going On'

As a result of the lawsuit, the federal court ordered an outside expert, known as the federal monitor, to oversee improvements and submit annual reports on conditions in the Hinds detention facility.

Monitor Leonard Dixon, the executive director of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Missouri, says children should not visit Henley-Young for treatment.

"The juvenile-detention facility is for three things: protection for the public; to ensure that a kid comes to court; and the beginning, key word beginning, of the rehabilitation process," Dixon said during an Oct. 5 interview.

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Federal monitor Leonard Dixon describes the role of the juvenile-detention facility as the “emergency room” of juvenile justice, not a long-term-care solution to mental-health or substance-abuse issues. Photo courtesy Leonard Dixon

McDonald's 89-day stays in Henley-Young, following the pattern of re-entry and release, do not set up children for treatment.

"They didn't have a placement, or they were just held there. Which was more of a revocation program than a treatment program, because there was no treatment going on," Dixon said.

McDonald followed that negative pattern during those almost three years of bouncing in and out of Henley-Young, McDaniels said. McDonald was doomed to sit out his time making no progress on the underlying issues he faced because he had no help available inside the facility and few options for finding help within the state's system.

"Eighty-nine days at a time, he just did time," McDaniels said. "But he never really got the long-term rehabilitative services that he needed. And ideally, that's what kids like Charles need: a long-term, rehabilitative setting. And Henley-Young is a short-term facility."

Dixon compared Henley-Young's role in the rehabilitative process to the emergency room. "You have to look at the juvenile-detention center as the emergency room of the juvenile-justice system," he said, explaining that it was a place to be diagnosed rather than treated, like with complex or chronic issues such as a serious bone injury. "But you don't go back to the emergency room; they send you to a bone specialist or another place for your treatment."

Dixon said Henley-Young has not been up to the task of facilitating proper evaluation of the children. After a recent expert review of the facility's mental-health capability, Hinds County decided to transfer more than $190,000 to Henley-Young to pay for a staff expansion, including mental-health experts.

"Not yet," Dixon said as to whether the facility met the level for appropriate care. "That's one of the reasons why the funding was put in place, to hire people to do that. You do have some mental health (care), but it is not fully developed."

McDaniels said the lack of available care, even basic evaluation for potential mental-health issues, pushed McDonald back onto the streets each time with little chance for intervention, unless it came in the form of further charges down the line.

"And at the end of the time, when he was released, he would go right back into that environment because there was nothing else following him once he left Henley-Young," McDaniels said. "That's where the whole case-management piece, I think, comes in. You get a kid like Charles in the system, he seriously needs case management; otherwise, he is going to fall through the cracks."

That case management, Dixon said, could flow between all parties involved, including the youth courts.

"Once that occurs, that information would go to the court, and the court would determine the best placement for that kid based on the resources, programs that are available," the monitor said.

McDaniels said that as a part of the mental-health expansion, Henley-Young is hiring three case managers who will track the children that enter the facility during their stay and after they leave in an effort to coordinate the care.

Defending Indigent Youth

Most of the children in the juvenile-justice system are indigent and cannot afford a private attorney, and so protecting their interests falls to the public defenders of the county.

"The majority of kids that come into youth court are indigent," Brenda Locke, juvenile resource attorney with Mississippi's Office for the State Public Defender, explains. "There are more (who are) poor than those that are not."

For each county, the juvenile-justice system is different. If the county has a circuit court, then one of the judges serves as the youth-court authority, and the county appoints or hires the public defenders. A few counties have chancellors from the chancery court, or appointed referees (appointed attorneys), who serve in the role of the youth court judge.

"A few areas will have a full-time defender that will represent the children," Locke said. "But it depends."

Locke said the attorneys representing the child in youth court have the same responsibilities as they would in circuit court for an adult client. One problem, Locke said, was that not all public defenders push to help the children, even as they repeatedly enter the system.

"Not all public defenders do that," she said. "They are supposed to. They are supposed to guide, counsel and advise. And to me, part of that is finding out what is going on so you can help them not come back."

Locke said Mississippi lacks a uniform public-defender system, especially for youth court. The state maintains that the Office for the State Public Defender, which Locke works in, but focuses on defense for capital-murder cases and training for adult public defenders.

This means that the pay for the public defenders, including the details of their contracts, are decided on the county levels, she said, sometimes through discussions with the youth-court judge, which Locke said might be a problem in the long run.

"Because the youth-court judge has a lot of influence over who gets appointed or who gets the contract, there is an issue, in most people's opinion, of whether you are going to be a zealous advocate and risk your job or kowtow to the judge and keep it," Locke said.

This situation could cause problems for the public defender, especially when considering alternative substance or mental-health treatment plans.

"As a public defender, you have to be kind of careful saying your client has a drug problem and needs to go off somewhere," Locke said. "Those treatments, even though they are supposed to be confidential, those can follow them. So you really have to be careful, in my opinion, when you are asking for some type of residential treatment facility to be very careful with that. Those types of admissions can cause problems for them later." 
 Locke added that if the child asks for help, the public defender can look for a suitable place to get it. However, it always depends on the judge to approve the plan, she said, which may or may not occur.

"Does that mean the court's going to do it? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on the judge, it depends on the circumstances, and it depends on the offense sometimes," she said. "There's not a whole lot of residential inpatient treatment for drug or mental health, for that matter, in Mississippi."

Of course, costs for treatment can be prohibitive, especially in a climate where the state is cutting mental-health services, Locke said.

"If you have a judge who really prefers detention," Locke said, "you can make the best argument in the world, and if the judge wants to put them in detention, they are going to. The problem that I have these days is that nobody is appealing this stuff."

Appealing, she said, could help keep more kids from the revolving door of juvenile-detention facilities like Henley-Young.

A lot of the proceedings, including whether the court itself is adhering to the state rules, happens outside the public eye because of the confidentiality rules surrounding youth courts.

Only the ability of the child's attorney to appeal prevents the abuse of the court's wide-ranging authority over the juveniles. Youth court, unlike the adult system, has no appeal track to the state supreme court. Instead, the name of the minor is reduced to initials only to protect his or her identity, and the case heads directly to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

"Under the appellate rules, it is supposed to be on an expedited track," Locke said. "It goes straight to the big boys."

Youth-court defendants appealed only two cases to the Mississippi Supreme Court in the last year, Locke said.

She said the child, if indigent, does not have to pay the attorney or the filing costs to appeal. The case would go to the state indigent appeal office, which would take it from there.

"I think (appeals) would hold the system more accountable. It would give guidance of the meaning of the statute," Locke said. "More appeals would help us. More appeals would give us more direction."

"There are cases that should be appealed all the time," Locke said. "We need a statewide public-defender system. Whose job is it to protect the expressed interest, the constitutional rights of these children? It's the public defender."

In her opinion, the state should develop an independent public-defender system, including a layer for juveniles.

"I believe that if we have a system where there is oversight over the people who are supposed to be protecting these kids, where there can be a guarantee of quality of representation, and there can be accountability for that other than just the private individual," Locke said. "Then that can help the system be better."

Solutions Outside the System

Eventually, though, the children return to the world at large, facing the same situations that landed them in Henley-Young in the first place, as McDaniels lamented.

Some cities have programs in place to help work against the societal and circumstantial contributors to repeat offenders and cycles of detention. Dr. Charles Corprew, a child and behavioral psychologist in New Orleans, works with young people to try to stop the cycle mid-rotation.

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Dr. Charles Corprew is a child-behavior psychologist in New Orleans. He works with young people there to prevent the cycle of violence and recidivism. He emphasizes building community resources to help parents and kids instead of youth detention, and the need to address generational trauma. Photo courtesy Dr Charles Corprew

Corprew said the battle for each child's future begins early on because the conditions they grow up in shape their development. Often, young people who end up in detention grow up in generational traumatic circumstances and poverty, a prime indicator for criminal activity.

"There are no developmental opportunities if there is trauma, if there are socioeconomic factors that are challenging the development of the child," Corprew said. "We talk a lot about how poverty affects the brain, how trauma affects the brain ... but we don't do a lot about it."

This approach lends the advantage of circumventing the whole legal system, correcting behavior at its root in the community. Techniques like these tend to be politically unpopular, especially when pitted against hard-on-crime tactics like longer sentences for offenders.

But, if rehabilitation can't take place in the detention center or in the state mental-health system, perhaps focusing on the formative conditions of the child is the answer to preventing more tragedies like McDonald.

"That's the crux of this," Corprew said. "I wholly believe that we are not doing enough in the beginning to help children grow up during those pivotal developmental years in childhood, because trauma has a lasting effect."

Corprew said research supports helping parents, to allow them to create a nurturing and positive environment. Many of those parents have also been caught up in generational trauma, and need to learn to break the cycle for their children.

"It is counter-intuitive. The research talks about bringing resources to the parents. So that is what is working, when you focus in on the parents," Corprew said.

One of the indicators for the level of academic performance, for instance, is the level of distress of the mother. In that vein, Corprew said, nonprofits in the area work to provide health and health education, drug and alcohol counseling, and financial skills, a concept called the "Missouri model."

This model, Corprew explained, outlined the effect of providing more services and resources to the parents, who then provide the environment and the foundation on which to build the child's personality and future. In short, you get out what you put in.

The City of New Orleans implemented a full-court press approach to violence and its roots with the "NOLA for Life" campaign. The project aims at combining community resources, education and work programs for offenders, as well as youth-impact programs like their wildly successful "midnight basketball" seasons.

As a result, that city brags of a 55-percent decrease in gun violence related to gangs and crews since 2011. The keys to cutting down on these sources of murder, death and crime, Corprew said, begin with the ability of the parent to provide a nurturing environment.

"Then that will be, hopefully, trickled down to the child, because then the parents are more successful and able to provide better means, better housing, food, access to health care, all of those systemic things that are impacting how we excel or do not excel in life," he said.

Crime and trauma in the child's environment affects and creates a situation that makes it more likely for him or her to become a part of the juvenile-justice system, Corprew said.

"We haven't begun to think counter-intuitively. Some states are doing it well, but many are not because they are not focused on the crux of the problem: How did the child develop into the space?" Corprew said. "So the child may grow up in a challenging home; they may be living with grandmother or grandfather who are too old to parent."

This home life contributes to other sources of difficulty for the child.

"They may be growing up in neighborhoods that don't have enough resources, and they end up going to schools who lack the resources," Corprew said. "So it is a systemic thing that provides the ultimate failure of the child."

Corprew said there is not just one way to mitigate the number of children moving in and out of the juvenile-justice system. It takes more of a wraparound approach.

"There are systems that work in conjunction with each other that you have to look at those various leverage points within the system, and pull them in concordance with each other to make a more meaningful impact," Corprew said.

This means mentoring for the child, Corprew said, along with support structures for the mother and the father. Corprew said the changes must come from strong leaders, including those on the bench.

"Courageous leadership," Corprew said. "It is that judge who has to say, this is not right, and that judge has to overcome their own personal bias and their own personal privilege."

Hinds County Youth Court Judge William Skinner has not responded to numerous requests for interviews.

Stopping the Cycle

Mason has moved from the home she shared with her son, downsizing to a small, one-bedroom apartment across town. She turned a set of shelves in the dining room nook into a small shrine.

Pictures of their family, including Charles and his older sister on either side of their mother, sit next to cards full of condolences and comfort. She likes to light small candles throughout the house.

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Yvette Mason created this memorial to her son Charles McDonald in the small dining area of her new, one-room apartment, including condolence letters from friends and family. She plans to dedicate an entire room for him if she is able to move into a larger house.

She speaks softly of her family, and the absence with which they must now grapple.

The ripples from McDonald's death continue, Mason said, and she talks about her "grandbaby," the daughter of her eldest, McDonald's sister, who will now grow up without an uncle and with the trauma of such a loss.

She said the child, only 5 years old, already conceptualizes her uncle as a ghost or an angel.

"They just know," Mason said, adding that it has been hard on his sister as well, as McDonald's only sibling.

Not to mention Mason herself, who said she was going to therapy, but added that she did not have a support group to go to, outside of her family, and even asked a reporter if he knew of any groups.

"No one has come to talk to me," Mason said, adding that the police have not even asked for a statement from her about that day her son died.

Thursdays are her worst days, she said, as she goes through each week moving steadily closer to the weekly-anniversary of the day he was shot.

Mason said the most difficult part, looking over to the shelf with his picture, is that it will continue to hurt for the rest of her life.

"I have my family," Mason said, "but not somebody to talk to who understands the pain."

Mason cannot pinpoint a moment where she could have done something differently, where she could have applied pressure or called the right department to get her boy help.

It is hard to tell, even now, where it all went wrong with her son. She agreed to speak about the incident, she said, to encourage others to consider the road that led to McDonald's death.

"My hope is that it can help just one more child," Mason said.

It is not clear if the shooter will be charged. The Jackson Police Department's official position on the case is that it has been passed to the Hinds County grand jury for consideration for indictment, and it will not provide the name of the shooter. No one at the courthouse will state whether or when such a presentation will take place, and a review of court records does not show an indictment related to the incident.

But even if the courts give Mason some justice for her son's death, which she wants, she admits she does not know what that word means now and, besides, it will not bring her son back.

The BOTEC report, in its description of the juvenile-justice system in Hinds County, paints a picture of blame: The schools blame the home environment, the detention center blames the state, and the state blames the local administrators.

But when the system does not correct the problems, including conventional "solutions," that contribute to recidivism of youth, mothers like Mason are left with little hope that the pieces of the juvenile justice will work together to combat the steady stream of young people into Henley-Young and then to adult 
correctional facilities.

If change does come now, it is far too late for kids like Charles McDonald.

Email city reporter Tim Summers Jr. at tim@jacksonfreepress.com. This work is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network. Read the series at jfp.ms/preventingviolence.

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