Concerns about a coronavirus outbreak within Colorado’s detention centers, prisons and other incarceration facilities have been raised since the beginning of the virus.
And while some jails or prisons have been slow to adjust their policies, the Colorado Department of Human Services began taking steps to protect juveniles and staff in the state’s Division of Youth Services in late March.
The division is taking “considerable precautions” to prevent the introduction and spread of COVID-19 and is aligning its policies with the Center of Disease Control and Colorado Department of Health and Environment recommendations, Madlynn Ruble of the CDHS said.
Currently, the department operates 10 secure youth centers, which accept individuals between the ages of 18-21, who are committed or pre-adjudicated. The DYS also administers juvenile parole services across the state in addition to residential programs.
Despite the many precautions and limitations, such as switching family visitation to virtual or telephone visitation options, as of Thursday attorneys were still approved to enter youth centers to meet with their clients, the DYS said. The organization asks attorneys to complete health screenings before entry.
The courts have adopted video hearings, reduced transportation outside youth centers and reduced in-person appearances in court, DYS said. Further, all 10 youth centers have been equipped with virtual visitation options by iPad or computer.
For the courts themselves, there is little overarching instruction on juvenile cases. After the chief justice’s March 16 order gave chief judges of each judicial district the authority to determine how best to modify court operations in response to COVID-19 , the only real direction to courts about juvenile cases is that they should not take place before June 1, Jon Sarche of the Colorado Judicial Department said.
For some jurisdictions, such as Boulder, the diversion programs for juveniles have ramped up, Elaina Shively, the Director of Center for Prevention and Restorative Justice, said. The Boulder office has a large diversion program and already deferred more youths than prosecuted. In COVID-19, the diversion programs have pivoted more to telehealth and online platforms and check-ins.
District Attorney Dan Rubinstein of the 21st Judicial District, said Mesa County has not made any modifications to its policies for who is eligible for the county’s juvenile program due to COVID-19.
Despite the changes in court proceedings, according to DYS parole hearings for juveniles will continue as scheduled. A set of guidelines and precautions were created by the Juvenile Parole Board, which dictate how hearings happen, who can access them and how courts are cleaned.
Among the procedures, client managers are required to coordinate with the JPB to set up telephone or video conferencing at the hearing for family members, staff and behavioral health staff for testimony, and if any person scheduled for the parole hearing becomes ill, they are asked not to attend and video/teleconferencing options will be made available.
For those youth who are awaiting placement, local county social or human services departments will continue to do work required by law, including youth placement, the DYS said. “However, the Department of Human Services does not have the authority to require specific contract community-based placements to accept youth.”
In addition, Colorado Youth Detention Continuum Coordinators in all judicial districts will continue to track youth in detention and are meeting with juvenile justice professionals to determine which youth can be released, according to the guide. The Division of Child Welfare and the CDHS intermediaries assigned to each county will continue to serve as a resource and work for the county.
YOUTH IN CENTERS
A continually updated DYS stakeholder guide is available online, which includes data and numbers involving COVID-19. As of April 29, there were a total of 431 in the Secure Youth Centers, both detained and committed youth.
There were 33 youths screened for COVID in the DYS on April 24. Of the 10 formally tested, all results came back negative. However, four employees are confirmed to have the virus, out of a total 46 employees screened for, according to the guide.
Youth testing results are immediately given to medical staff at a youth center, but there is a shortage of tests . As of March 31, the DYS had a total of eight coronavirus test kits “and additional tests are available by the Department should they be needed.”
“Testing of youth has been targeted due to issues with capacity for processing tests statewide,” the guide states. While tests are being performed in youth centers, DYS mentioned that more aggressive testing will take place as capacity improves.
In the DYS Pandemic Plan, which is updated regularly, the dining halls chairs and tables must be cleaned after every group of youth uses the facilities. Handwashing must take place before each meal. Further, programs continue throughout the youth centers, including treatment and behavioral health support, and educational programming.
A new medical screening process has been implemented for all new admissions, and a screening process for anyone entering a youth center. Other changes include having professional meetings conducted by phone or virtually and reduction in outside service providers. Meetings, such as those for religious services, have also been made virtual, according to DYS.
The DYS said they are ensuring that staff and youth stay in small groups to whatever extent possible and that PPE is in stock. Each day, symptoms of staff and youth are reviewed.
Hand sanitizer and soap are accessible regularly, and “ongoing reminders and signs posted to encourage youth to wash their hands and keep them from touching their face, nose and eyes,” according to the DYS website. Signs in Spanish will be added to the centers shortly.
DYS implemented universal masking of all direct care staff during the week of 3/30/20,” the DYS website states. “Youth are now also receiving masks.”
On April 23, the DYS had updated their mask protocols, according to the DYS Pandemic Plan.
The masks used by the DYS are to consist of two pieces which have cloth cut out for the ears, in addition each youth will need two different types of fabric for the mask to ensure they are able to differentiate the inside and outside of the mask. The masks will be changed out daily and cleaned.
When the masks are removed, such as at meal times, the masks will be separated for staff to “easily see there is no contraband or compromise to the mask.” Masks are not required during meals or during recreation, and youth taking medications are required to wait 15 minutes after administration to decrease chances of misuse, according to the DYS.
Those who are at higher risk for self-harm or trauma are not required to wear a mask, according to the DYS plan. “BHS will be involved with youth who may be more prone to increased anxiety or panic attacks due to the wearing of the mask.”
“Youth will not be consequented for refusing to wear a mask for source control. Youth will be asked to sign a refusal form stating they have been informed of the reasons for wearing a mask and the risks of not wearing one,” the pandemic plan states.
— Avery Martinez