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Louisiana parents sue to get children out of juvenile detention as coronavirus spreads

“I was panicking worrying about him," one mother said after her 17-year-old son tested positive for COVID-19.
The Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe, Louisiana.
The Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe, Louisiana.Google Maps

I.B. told his mom he didn’t feel well during a phone call April 5.

The 17-year-old incarcerated at the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe, Louisiana, had a nurse take his temperature during the call; it was over 100 degrees.

The next day, his mother called the Swanson Center several times to find out how her son was doing, but his case worker said she didn’t know and would call back in a week, according to a sworn declaration from I.B.’s mother, filed Thursday as part of a class-action lawsuit seeking the release of incarcerated children in Louisiana amid the spreading coronavirus pandemic.

I.B.’s mother, who is identified in the lawsuit only as A.B., called the Swanson Center’s infirmary and learned that her son was there, but she said staff members hung up on her twice. After two days, she finally reached a supervisor, who confirmed that I.B. tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

According to the declaration, I.B. later told his mother he was placed in a “dirty room” with no air conditioning for several days. He wasn’t allowed to take a bath or brush his teeth, his mother said.

“I wasn’t able to talk to him at all during that time,” I.B.’s mother said in the declaration. She said she grew increasingly alarmed; her sister and two close friends had recently died of COVID-19. “I was panicking worrying about him.”

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Parents say in the lawsuit against Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Office of Juvenile Justice that the state has kept them in the dark about their children’s health. They also say that the conditions their children have described in phone calls — no masks, no hand sanitizer, no social distancing — show that the facilities are not taking proper steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and the only effective step is to start releasing the youth.

“You need to have fewer people — this is not rocket science,” said Marsha Levick, chief legal officer at the Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit involved in the lawsuit.

Levick said Louisiana doesn’t need to wait for a judge’s order to release the youth; the state could allow the children to temporarily return home through a furlough program that’s already in place.

Beth Touchet-Morgan, executive management advisor for the Office of Juvenile Justice, said masks had been distributed to each detained youth, and the facilities have hand sanitizer available in all common areas. Dusty Bickham, the head of the office, has spoken with 50 parents and guardians since taking office in March, Touchet-Morgan said, and "staff have been in regular contact with parents as the COVID-19 pandemic has evolved." She did not elaborate, but said any parents with concerns or who need more information can call the Office of Juvenile Justice.

Advocacy groups, public health experts and defense attorneys nationwide have scrambled to get incarcerated youth out of detention facilities, concerned that the institutions are susceptible to coronavirus outbreaks. Jails and prisons for adults have already become hot spots for COVID-19.

The fears have been especially pronounced in Louisiana, which has more than 32,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and at least 2,381 deaths.

“They are a forgotten population in this COVID crisis, at least here in our state,” said Latoyia Porter, a mother of a teen incarcerated at Louisiana’s Acadiana Center for Youth, who filed a declaration with the suit. “Nobody is considering them.”

Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice says that 28 youth among the state’s four long-term detention facilities — Bridge City Center for Youth, the Acadiana Center in Bunkie, the Swanson Center in Columbia and the Swanson Center in Monroe — have tested positive for the coronavirus, and all have recovered.

But that figure has remained static since at least April 21, the suit states, “a fact which is both at odds with everything known about how COVID-19 spreads and with the rest of the world’s experience with it.” The agency has not said when and how often tests are administered, or how it determines when a child who tests positive has recovered.

Forty-one employees at the four facilities have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 16 have recovered, according to the state.

Nationwide, at least 288 youth in detention have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Joshua Rovner, who studies juvenile justice at the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit. He is counting COVID-19 cases through a mix of state figures and media reports. He said that many states have not been transparent about how they are testing detained youth.

“Families are right to be outraged,” Rovner said. “We all should be.”

While no youth in juvenile detention centers are known to have died from the coronavirus, health experts warn that children with underlying health conditions are more vulnerable to complications from the disease. And children involved with the criminal justice system are more likely to have unmet health needs, research shows.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of I.B. and another incarcerated youth represented by The Promise of Justice Initiative and the Juvenile Law Center, two advocacy organizations, working with New Orleans lawyer John Adcock and attorneys from the international law firm O'Melveny & Myers.

Seven parents submitted declarations with the suit detailing what their children have told them about the conditions in the facilities, stating that the children are not provided with protective gear or cleaning materials.

The mother of one youth who tested positive for the coronavirus, identified as J.S., said in a declaration that the Swanson Center in Monroe didn’t notify her when her son, who has asthma, was moved out of quarantine.

Parents fear the situation could worsen, since family visits, mental health care and schooling are all canceled because of the pandemic. The mother of one incarcerated child, who was recently transferred from the Bridge City Center to the Acadiana Center, said in a sworn declaration that her son has post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but he hasn’t been able to speak with his counselor.

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The governor's office told NBC News last month that the Office of Juvenile Justice was "working to keep parents of youth updated" on the situation, but families say in the suit that they haven't received any information.

The detention facilities can’t support social distancing measures, according to a declaration from Glenn Holt, a former assistant secretary of the Office of Juvenile Justice. The state’s “first and continued response” should have been to shrink the population at the detention centers, he said. He added that some of the facilities are a half hour or more away from the nearest hospital, making it difficult to quickly help a sick child if their condition worsens.

“OJJ’s response to COVID-19 has put the children in their custody at risk of serious medical complications,” Holt said, “including death.”