Oakley Still Hurting Children | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Oakley Still Hurting Children

Students may no longer have to eat their own vomit at Oakley Training School, but the Department of Justice's eighth quarterly monitors' report shows that the school still has a very long way to go.

"During my tour of Oakley Training School I found that there were numerous reports regarding incidents of youth-on-youth assaults, staff assaults and youth being placed in behavior management for their own protection," wrote DOJ monitor Leonard Dixon in the July report. It was said that there were incidents of inappropriate sexual behavior and youth needing to be segregated. … Youth and staff are still afraid for their safety because there is little or no control on the Oakley campus; this was evident during my visit."

The facility is in acute need of staff and the most basic of maintenance: "[T]here remains a lack of sufficient staff to adequately monitor and supervise youth. … My observations … revealed the need for major facility maintenance as evidenced by holes in the walls, broken doors and locks, non-working toilets and showers in need of repair and cleaning," Dixon wrote.

The school also has yet to address serious issues in the area of suicide prevention. Oakley is not in substantial compliance with any of the nine suicide prevention provisions.

"[T]he Monitor was informed by Dr. Owens that treatment or service planning for suicidal youth was a 'work in progress.' This is a generous description of the program," monitor Lindsay Hayes wrote. "In fact, there is no treatment planning for suicidal youth currently at Oakley Training School. … [S]taff are inadequately trained to develop, implement, and revise treatment plans for suicidal youth."

Oakley Training School, where Mississippi houses its juvenile offenders, has taken small steps from where it was in 2005 when the DOJ stepped in to curb the abusive and inhumanely neglectful conditions at Oakley and at the Columbia Training School, which closed in July. But three years later, the state is in "substantial compliance" with only 10 percent of the consent decree, and is stagnant on more than 80 percent of its provisions.

In 2003, a DOJ investigation—conducted in response to three federal lawsuits filed against the schools—documented the conditions of the schools, reporting abuses such as students being hog-tied by staff and left naked in small dark cells for days at a time. Their investigation spurred a lawsuit against the state of Mississippi. After the agency won the lawsuit in 2005, Mississippi passed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act and worked with the DOJ to devise a plan to begin fixing the problems. The original goal of 2009 was extended an additional year in 2007, when it was clear the state would not reach the deadline.

"The theory is that they should be in full compliance by 2010, which doesn't look realistic at all," said Bear Atwood of the Mississippi Youth Justice Project.

"This report confirms that Oakley Training School is still a place where children are warehoused, traumatized and brutalized in an environment that greatly diminishes their chances of rehabilitation and success when they rejoin their communities," Atwood wrote in a Sept. 3 statement. MYJP's mandate includes monitoring juvenile facility conditions.

Atwood says she doesn't believe that substantial changes will happen with the current staff and institution model.

"We need to move away from a centralized training school and we need to go to small regional facilities where kids are getting treatment in their own communities," Atwood said.

Community-based programs are showing great success in other states. Earlier this month, Missouri's Division of Youth Service won the 2008 Annie E. Casey Innovations Award in Children and Family System Reform from the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University, which will allow Missouri to replicate its success around the country.

"Missouri has really made amazing strides in reducing recidivism and getting kids back on track," Atwood said.

Richard Harris, administrator over the Division of Youth Services at the Mississippi Department of Human Services blamed the combination of staffing issues and the change in DOJ monitors for much of the problems. Staff turnover should be around 10 percent, he said, but is running closer to 15 percent.

"This isn't a complaint, but Justice has just changed monitors. … I believe the new monitors are more exacting than the previous monitor," Harris said.

The areas the DOJ is monitoring at Oakley are: medical and dental services, special education, suicide prevention, protection from harm, and mental health and rehabilitative services. Each has milestone dates for compliance, beginning with medical and dental services, and special education by January 2009, and ending with protection from harm, and mental health and rehabilitation services by May 2010. Meeting the goals in the suicide prevention area is targeted for July 2009.

"Despite attrition, our senior staff is probably the best we've had in place for four years," Harris said. "Our senior staff is demonstrating awareness of activities we need to make the program work. We're very proud of our senior staff.

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