Widespread failures in the ability of the city's juvenile justice agency to assess, place and oversee youth in its custody are complicating efforts to prevent young offenders from going missing or to locate them when they do, the District's inspector general says.
A 71-page "report of special evaluation," issued Dec. 2, cites a litany of problems with the District's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services — an agency that has struggled in recent years to balance youth rehabilitation and public safety.
Among the findings, the report says youths face no consequences for repeatedly walking away from custody, or "absconding," or for destroying GPS devices intended to monitor them.
The report says the agency employs inconsistent definitions for when a youth in its custody has absconded. It says the agency has not effectively communicated policies on reporting such absences to parents or to rehabilitative facilities with which it contracts, which could lead to delays in reporting youths who go missing.
"Untimely reporting could create dangerous situations whereby DYRS is unaware that a youth in its custody has absconded, make tracking and locating absconders more difficult, skew abscondence data, and threaten the health and safety of committed youths," the report says.
The report says some managers interviewed seemed confused about agency policy and the limits of their authority and it noted high turnover in senior-level positions.
It also said the agency's case managers don't meet with juveniles as frequently as guidelines recommend — a key element of the rehabilitative model the District has adopted.
The District provides rehabilitation to juvenile offenders in a variety of settings that include placement within the community, at community-based residential facilities or residential treatment centers, or at New Beginnings, its 60-bed secure facility in Laurel. The guiding philosophy for treatment calls for placing youth committed to the agency's custody in the "least restrictive" setting and heavily involving family and community — often in neighborhood settings with frequent contact required from case managers.
"Multiple interviewees informed the[inspector general's] team that, although some case managers are meeting the requirement, many are not meeting with youths as frequently as the Manual requires," the report says.
Investigators cited one extreme case in which a juvenile at a DYRS facility did not see a case manager for 18 months. In another case, they said a senior agency official told them of families of youths who help them leave faraway facilities by paying for their travel home.
The report concludes that effectively providing adequate housing and necessary services would reduce abscondences. But it said the District has a shortage of residential treatment facilities that can serve young people with drug problems or mental illnesses. And it says DYRS sometimes sends offenders with higher risks of reoffending to facilities with less security over the objections of those facilities because it doesn't have enough space to hold them in secure buildings — not because they pose less risk to the public.
The investigation was conducted from December 2011 to September 2012 — a period during which The Washington Times reported that more than 50 D.C. youths in the custody of the city had been killed or found guilty of killing someone in the previous five years. The report in The Times said the majority of the youths had been categorized in advance as posing a "high," "high-medium" or "medium" risk of reoffending.
Investigators cited agency statistics indicating that 381 different youths went missing a total of 491 times from July 1, 2012, through June 30, 2013, and they note the agency has taken "significant steps" toward reducing abscondences — which the agency noted can be as short as an hour.
Investigators praised DYRS for making strides in locating juveniles who walk away from custody and for reducing the amount of time it takes to find them. It also said the agency has brought more young people in its care back from residential treatment facilities far outside the District and acknowledged the difficulty of preventing youths from absconding in a rehabilitation system that relies on them to make appropriate choices.
DYRS, which has about 580 employees and a fiscal 2012 budget of just more than $100 million, oversaw 1,152 committed youths that year.
Agency officials agreed with just three of the 17 recommendations contained in the report, which is riddled with footnotes detailing their objections. In a response letter, officials also questioned the relevance, the methodology and the accuracy of the information in the report.
"Since [the inspector general's office] began its investigation, DYRS has made a number of changes to policy and practice that have further reduced the number of young people who absconded from their community-based placements. Thus, many of the specific findings and/or recommendations in the report have already been addressed or explored," DYRS Deputy Director Stephen Luteran wrote in a response to Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby.
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