A federal class-action lawsuit filed in Oakland Friday alleges that Contra Costa County juvenile justice staff are violating federal and state
anti-discrimination laws by placing mentally disabled youth in solitary confinement for months at a time and denying them education and treatment.
The suit, brought by Disability Rights Advocates, Public Counsel and Paul Hastings LLP, claims that staff at Juvenile Hall in Martinez are defying state mandates to make juvenile detention facilities into home-like rehabilitation centers rather than prisons focused on punishment.
"Young people deserve a second chance when they get off track and end up in Juvenile Hall, and education should be at the center of rehabilitation," said Disability Rights Advocates Managing Attorney Mary-Lee Smith.
Of the roughly 32 percent of Contra Costa Juvenile Hall students who require some form of special education, many are routinely denied access to the special education they need and are put in situations that exacerbate their already fragile mental states, attorneys said.
"We're really doing the moral equivalent of stealing children's futures, because the research is very clear that when you lock a child away,
particularly a child with a disability, in solitary confinement, that disability gets worse and they deteriorate...making it much less likely they will come back to the community and be successful," said Laura Faer, Public Counsel's statewide education rights director.
The three main plaintiffs in the lawsuit are teens being held in the county's 290-bed Juvenile Hall whose parents say staff put them in
solitary confinement for weeks and months at a time, ignoring their need for education or proper mental health treatment and causing the children to "deteriorate," attorneys said.
In some cases, Contra Costa juvenile hall students with learning disorders or mental illnesses are kept in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, Faer said.
One of the main plaintiffs in the case, a 14-year-old girl diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD, was removed from school and locked in solitary confinement for 100 days over the course of a year, attorneys said.
According to the lawsuit, juvenile hall staff never inquired about whether her behavior was related to her mental illness.
In another case, a 17-year-old boy referred to in the suit as W.B. was kept in solitary confinement for three months, even after the juvenile court found him mentally incompetent due to his schizophrenia.
During his time in solitary confinement, his condition worsened rapidly, according to the lawsuit.
Attorneys said Juvenile Hall staffers kept the teen in solitary confinement even after he began hearing voices, started talking to himself and said he believed his food was being poisoned. The ongoing solitary confinement eventually caused him to have a psychotic break in which he smeared feces on the cell wall, prompting him to be sent to a psychiatric hospital, according to Disability Rights Advocates.
He is now back in juvenile hall, although the legal team that filed the suit is advocating for his placement in a psychiatric treatment facility, Faer said.
She said juvenile hall students can be placed in solitary confinement even for minor infractions such as cursing, talking back to a teacher or not being able to complete an assignment.
The lawsuit is seeking class-action status and access to education for incarcerated youth with disabilities, requiring the county to comply with
existing anti-discrimination laws, Faer said.
The suit names the county, its probation department and office of education, Chief Probation Officer Philip Kader, Juvenile Hall Superintendent Bruce Pelle, schools Superintendent Joseph Ovick and director of court
schools Lynn Mackey.
Peggy Marshburn, spokeswoman for the county's education department, declined to comment, saying staff just received the lawsuit this afternoon and are now reviewing it.
Pelle said this afternoon that he could not comment on the suit because he hadn't seen it yet, and Kader could not immediately be reached.