Responding to complaints about the health and well-being of unaccompanied minor children who were detained by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and placed at the Juvenile Detention Facility (JDF) in Woodland, the Yolo County Grand Jury investigated the situation.
This is one of just two secure care facilities in the country. The JDF has “found many of the unaccompanied alien children inaccurately assessed by ORR, and has released youth or transferred them to a less severe facility, whenever appropriate.”
Under the current contract, set to expire in 2020, the JDF “can only house 24 unaccompanied alien children at any given time. Although the population constantly changes, the average population since 2018 has been well below the maximum.”
Since the 2017-18 Grand Jury report, auditors from the state and staff changes in December 2018 reported that “positive changes in the JDF have occurred.
“These include hiring more officers, officer training time increased from 40 to 120 hours, and the addition of an in-house training officer. In addition, the unaccompanied alien children have increased phone time, video chat opportunities, more access to mental health workers and counselors, and various social improvements.”
The Grand Jury notes that the “JDF staff seem to recognize that the unaccompanied alien children entering their facility are traumatized and require individualized help for coping and learning behavioral management skills.”
The majority of these children come into ORR custody because “they were apprehended by border patrol officers while entering the US without legal authorization.”
They have procedures in place to obtain background information that assesses whether the child presents a danger to themselves or others.
This represents a far cry from the situation in 2017, when “GE,” a 14-year-old unaccompanied minor was kept in custody despite having cleared asylum, but had remained housed indefinitely at the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility despite having no criminal record.
Holly Cooper, co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at UC Davis, at the time expressed concern that unaccompanied minors have few legal remedies, and “can find themselves indefinitely detained.” But she said “G.E.’s case is particularly disturbing because he remains locked up despite facing no criminal charges and no pending deportation order.
“We don’t believe that his confinement is constitutionally or legally justified,” she said.
Nor was GE alone in this problem. In one case, covered in court filings from August 2016, the individual was transferred to Yolo County without explanation.
In a declaration the minor wrote: “In Yolo, we live in a real prison. The food, the program, the life, the routine: everything is a penitentiary. They treat us badly, like delinquents. The entire time, we live locked up. They don’t grab us to go to the park, the library, or anywhere normal. They lock us up in the cells every night, to sleep on benches made out of cement with mattresses.”
The individual indicated that they have “never consulted with a lawyer.”
In the latest report, the Grand Jury found, among other things, that the public still “lacks access to Probation Department policies and procedures through the Yolo County website.”
Furthermore, “the reasons ORR gives for referring youth for placement at the JDF are sometimes inappropriate, many ORR youths often lack criminal or gang affiliation, yet are housed at JDF with those that do.”
In addition, “JDF procedures do not mandate a behavioral therapist consistently in the pods nor at use-of-force reviews, the ORR program is financially important to the county yet risks potential litigation, and the uncertainty about length of stay and future placement creates stress for ORR youth.”
The Grand Jury found that the use of force is “down since 2017-18 Grand Jury Report,” although they are relying on “Serious Incident Reports.”
The report notes: “Assuming the reports accurately depict events, they portray compassionate and considerate treatment of youth by the officers in nonviolent circumstances and after use-of-force incidents.”
The Grand Jury did not review surveillance video, however it noted that “experts at the California Department of Justice reviewed eleven surveillance videos at the JDF involving use of force incidents and found four instances where a detention officer used force ‘in excess of what facility policy allows.’”
One example: “[A] report concerning an officer tackling a youth sitting at a table stated that the youth prompted the event by rising with clenched fists. However, the video did not clearly support that claim.”
They note that the use of pepper spray “is hotly debated in California and nationally. California is one of six states allowing detention officers to routinely carry pepper spray (also known as ‘O.C. spray’) in youth detention facilities, whereas some states allow for its use only in specific circumstances.”
Overuse of pepper spray has created controversy. That includes at JDF – where a lawsuit in 2017 alleges in 2017 “that detention officers used pepper spray, not as a last resort, but as a means for controlling youth in nonviolent situations.”
Moreover, “in 2018, youth alleged detention officers were reckless in their use of pepper spray.”
The Grand Jury notes: “An affidavit by one youth new to the JDF and allegedly uninformed of the ‘cover’ command asserts he was sprayed in the face for failing to cover, passed out, and awoke in the hospital. Others testified to witnessing other youth sprayed when being held down by multiple detention officers, or in the cover position, or in handcuffs. Another youth’s affidavit stated he had known knee problems and when unable to get fully into the cover position, he was threatened with pepper spray.”
Recommendations include “ensuring the Notices of Placement include status of the immigration case and the steps ORR youth need to take for release from the JDF, allowing ORR youth who are not charged with criminal offenses to have private and unrecorded phone calls, conducting activities outside whenever possible.”
In addition, they recommend “having the Board of Supervisors study the controversial use of pepper spray, mandating the attendance of behavioral therapists at use-of-force reviews.”
The Grand Jury also recommends having the Board of Supervisors convene an independent interdisciplinary group to ensure ORR youths’ privacy, considering posting Probation Department policies and procedures on the Yolo County website, and considering using the empty pod for transitional adult detainees, thus enabling JDF to continue with ORR and the funding it provides.
—David M. Greenwald reporting