The D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services’ $46 million state-of-the-art detention and treatment center has been plagued since its 2009 opening by design flaws, understaffing, inadequate training, and lack of discipline and accountability, according to a report released Monday.
Working with the findings of a security and staffing expert recommended by District officials, court-appointed special arbiter Grace Lopes — named as part of a consent decree in a class-action lawsuit — focused on issues that date to horrific abuses at the now-defunct Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel. Those abuses continue to challenge DYRS officials despite progress in developing more therapeutic programs to go with its replacement, the heralded New Beginnings Youth Development Center, also in Laurel.
“Population management, understaffing and security deficits related primarily to the fact that the physical plant was not designed to meet the security needs of the youth housed at the facility” have contributed to “serious and persistent safety problems since the time the facility opened in May 2009,” Ms. Lopes wrote.
The report centered on the work plan mandated by the consent decree in the 1985 Jerry M. case, which represented a class of detained and committed children confined at Oak Hill and contended that the city failed to provide appropriate care, rehabilitation and treatment.
Despite improved educational and recreational activities at New Beginnings, Ms. Lopes criticized DYRS for its inability — for more than 2½ years since it opened and for a “much longer period of time at Oak Hill” — to meet staffing requirements.
“The court has exercised substantial patience during this time period,” she wrote, adding that if DYRS is unable to comply with the work plan “it is likely” she will recommend “alternative remedial options.”
The report goes on to cite a litany of violent incidents at New Beginnings that can be attributed to inadequate security features in the facility’s hardware and room construction, staffing deficiencies and poor supervision, and instability among the DYRS leadership at both the facility and the executive levels.
“Collectively, these circumstances have created an environment at New Beginnings that exposes youth to an unreasonable risk of harm,” the report states.
Council member Jim Graham, a Ward 1 Democrat who oversees DYRS, recently held oversight hearings during which he focused most of his criticism not on New Beginnings but on a mentoring program for committed youths placed in community settings. But on Monday he said DYRS Director Neil A. Stanley has outlined staffing and deployment changes and new budget priorities he hopes will address the problems at New Beginnings. A budget oversight hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.
In an email, Mr. Graham added: “I am deeply concerned by the special arbiter’s report. The fact that DYRS wards appear to be traumatized by violence before they enter the DYRS system and even after they are in the custody and care of DYRS is inexcusable and indefensible.”
DYRS officials did not comment. In the report, however, they expressed “serious concerns” that it exceeded the scope of “any purported staffing analysis,” did not consider “actual incident data,” and failed to take into account the hiring of additional staff and “substantially lower population levels.”
In her 177-page report, Ms. Lopes noted that New Beginnings was designed to house from 40 to 60 youths for from six to nine months. But the District has more than 1,000 committed youths at any given time, and the study also was predicated on the idea that residents of New Beginnings would not be commingled with high-risk youths awaiting placement in community settings or at out-of-state residential treatment facilities.
DYRS has failed to observe that condition, Ms. Lopes‘ report states, and the same commingling that on a larger scale “compromised the development of the therapeutic model at Oak Hill, had the same negative impact at New Beginnings.”