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City Agrees to Extend Federal Oversight of Youth Lockup After Grim Reports Persist

Horizon Juvenile Center
An outdoor recreation area at the Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx, June 24, 2019.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

New York City’s child welfare agency has agreed to the return of some federal oversight of its Bronx juvenile detention center, a court filing shows.

The Horizon Juvenile Center, which largely houses teens being held pre-trial, lost its independent federal monitor in July after the city Administration for Children’s Services took over operations from the Department of Correction.

The monitoring had been required as part of the so-called Nunez lawsuit settlement between the city and feds following findings of abuse by Department of Correction officers.

As THE CITY reported in February, the original class-action suit focused on abuses by adult guards, so oversight ended when the last teens overseen by the DOC left Horizon during the summer.

If Friday’s agreement is accepted by a judge, federal oversight at Horizon is poised to go on for at least another year and a half, but only for 16- and 17-year olds accused or convicted of a felony.

As of Friday, there were 107 kids total in lockup across both Horizon and Brooklyn’s Crossroads Juvenile Center, which is not overseen by the monitor, according to figures from the state Office of Children and Family Services.

After negotiations with the monitor and plaintiffs in the Nunez suit, the Administration for Children’s Services agreed to let the the federal overseer reenter the facility, but focused on a narrower set of issues than in the original settlement.

Federal monitor Steve Martin’s eye will be on promoting safe physical restraints, sufficient social programming, consistent staffing levels, and the preservation of video recordings of incidents, according to the agreement. ACS is expected to be held accountable for efforts to quell high levels violence between staff and detainees at Horizon.

“Our top priority is the safety and well-being of youth and staff in our juvenile detention centers,” said an ACS spokesperson of the agreement.

‘We Can’t Slip Back’

In 2018, teenagers jailed at the notoriously violent Rikers Island were transferred to more separate youth detention centers due to the state’s groundbreaking Raise the Age reforms that passed the year before.

Initially, DOC employees — and what the monitor and critics call their violent punishment approach — accompanied the teens. But corrections officers were slowly replaced by youth development specialists from ACS.

The difficult transition and ongoing pandemic-related hurdles has caused unrest at Horizon, according to monitor reports.

In what was to be the final watchdog report on the juvenile center last week, federal monitor Martin said there was an “encouraging” decrease in use of force — albeit from limited data— but that “unsafe practices” and “hyper-confrontational conduct” persisted under ACS staff.

“The culture of disorder at [Horizon] must be transformed,” Martin concluded, adding later that he was “anxious” to resolve the question of whether oversight would continue.

Martin’s May report was more severe — calling the facility “plagued by disorder”, with violence rising 54% compared to the previous six months.

The union representing ACS staff could not be reached for immediate comment.

“We can’t slip back,” said Christine Pahigian, executive director of nonprofit Friends of Island Academy, which serves youth in the criminal justice system.

“We have to keep pushing ourselves to do better. As long as we have one kid in jail, we need to make sure that they are perpetually on somebody’s radar,” said Pahigian.

Oversight by the federal monitor will continue through June 2022 in the form of three separate reports, or until ACS is in full compliance with the federal monitor, according to the Friday agreement.

If, at the end of that period, issues persist, the city may discuss the possibility of an extension.

‘Harmful Stuff’

Whenever the federal monitoring ends, the state Office of Children and Family Services would become the last layer of oversight aside from the City Council.

“There’s nothing wrong with OCFS oversight, just, it’s a state function up in Albany, a distant thing,” said Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Columbia Justice Lab, and former city probation commissioner.

Before July, corrections officers at Horizon were under the additional eyes of the Board of Corrections, which watchdogs city jail, as well as the City Council’s Juvenile Justice Committee.

A possible future solution could be the creation of a permanent independent oversight agency or branch to watch over youth in lockup, Schiraldi said.

“I strongly believe in independent oversight of locked facilities, regardless of who runs them,” said Schiraldi. “The day you lock a kid in, the day you lock doors at facilities, you’re always in jeopardy of harmful stuff happening.”

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