An article published just before the weekend in The Oregonian outlined a new effort to change the way the state handles juvenile jails in general and mental illness among juvenile detainees in particular. “Nearly a dozen organizations, including the ACLU of Oregon, as well as groups that advocate for people with mental illness and juveniles, asked Gov. Kate Brown for ‘support in reducing Oregon’s reliance on youth incarceration’ and ensuring better conditions for juveniles in custody,” the paper reports.
According to The Oregonian the initiative was “prompted by Disability Rights Oregon’s blistering critique of the Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility, known as Norcor, in The Dalles. The organization… found that juveniles were locked in their cells for hours at a time and punished ‘for looking around.’”
This new focus on the juvenile detention system follows equally sharp criticisms of Oregon’s child welfare system, something I wrote about at length last month. Taken together they paint a picture of state institutions ill-equipped to protect children who end up in the care of the government. The conditions described in The Oregonian’s account of the juvenile justice system are particularly shocking. The coalition report on Norcor in particular portrays it as an institution using “outdated policies designed to ‘break the will at any cost.’” This way of thinking, it adds, is “out of step with the latest research and practices on juvenile incarceration.”
At a more basic level, however, it is probably also illegal. As I have noted many times on this blog, and as a number of state government-run websites detail, numerous people in the education, medical and law enforcement communities have mandatory reporting obligations if they see or have reason to believe that a child is being mistreated. That would include pretty much anyone who works at Norcor or a similar juvenile detention institution, this includes people working as guards and not just the medical or educational staff assigned to the facility.
As a Portland attorney with a longstanding interest in protecting and defending injured or abused children I welcome the coalition report detailed in the newspaper and Governor Brown’s statement reaffirming the state’s obligation to treat all juvenile detainees “fairly and with dignity.” It is also worth remembering, however, that our judicial system also has a role to play here. Our civil courts are a powerful tool for anyone needing to enforce accountability among officials and institutions who have failed in their duty to protect children. This includes ensuring that children in custody always receive the medical and mental health care they need.
The Oregonian: Advocates, ACLU push for independent oversight of juvenile jails
Oregon Department of Human Services: Child Abuse & Neglect
ORS 124.105: Physical Abuse Subject to Action