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Official Hopes Prison Crisis May Spur Change

After a state task force delivered a withering indictment of New York’s juvenile prisons, the head of the agency responsible for the prisons reacted by going on a publicity blitz — not to challenge the findings, but to promote them.

Gladys Carrión has the support of child-welfare advocates but draws criticism from unions representing workers at her agency.

“It is a lever, and I think that is important,” Gladys Carrión, the commissioner of the state Office of Children and Family Services, said Monday, in between an interview with a radio station and a meeting with the chairman of the task force. “Usually the lever is the death of a child, and I don’t want to see that. If it takes this report to push through change, then good.”

When Ms. Carrión, a lawyer and a former executive at the United Way, took over the department in 2007, her track record as a no-nonsense leader raised hopes that she could overhaul what was widely considered a broken system.

But after almost three years progress has been halting, and the task force, which was appointed by Gov. David A. Paterson last year, described a system rife with problems. Many of the youths at the state’s 28 facilities have mental illnesses or drug addictions for which they get inadequate treatment, the report found. Many of those released from state custody are arrested and jailed again within a few years. And despite stringent rules imposed by Ms. Carrión dictating when staff can use physical force, abuse complaints are still common.

The United States Department of Justice, which highlighted serious physical abuse at four prisons in a separate report last summer, has threatened to take over the entire system if the problems are not fixed.

Ms. Carrión and her supporters — including juvenile justice experts and child welfare advocates — blame a combination of bureaucratic inertia, scarce state dollars, and resistance from unions and elected officials to closing or reducing the size of the prisons, many of which are in struggling upstate communities that need the jobs.

Ms. Carrión, 58, a blunt yet cheerful Bronx native who previously was a city community development official and worked as an executive at the United Way of New York City, said she embraced the task force report’s findings in part because they revealed the magnitude of the work that remains.

“I have people on staff that have two, three, four, five cases of abuse or inappropriate restraint, and I can’t get rid of them” because of civil-service rules, Ms. Carrión said. “I’m also the commissioner of child welfare. If you as a parent abuse your child, I take them away from you. Why is there a different standard for children that are in juvenile justice?”

But her critics, including the unions that represent agency workers, seized on the task force’s findings on Monday to argue that Ms. Carrión was the problem.

“If things haven’t improved in the three years she’s been in this position, the governor should decide what’s in the best interests of these kids,” said Ken Brynien, the president of the New York State Public Employees Federation.

Some advocates believe there needs to be a greater sense of urgency because the future of many young people in the agency’s care is at stake. “The system is turning in a new direction,” the task force’s report said, “but there is still much more to be done.”

Ms. Carrión acknowledged that she needed to do better.

Asked what her biggest failure had been, she did not hesitate before answering.

“My greatest disappointment continues to be the number of restraints in my system — that we still have a correctional model where kids get hurt,” she said. “The worst day for me always is when I go visit a facility. I see these children, and it kills me. I grew up in the same communities that these kids come from. I see our future.”

Still, she has aggressively downsized the system of state-run youth prisons and diverted resources to community-based care: smaller group facilities located closer to a youth’s family that emphasize psychological counseling and rehabilitation, with longer-term residential prisons reserved for the truly dangerous.

“She believes, and I am a proponent as well, that in New York State we have historically overvalued institutional care for the juvenile delinquent population,” said Bill Baccaglini, executive director of the New York Foundling, a private child welfare agency, and a former senior official at the Office of Children and Family Services.

Ms. Carrión has closed 11 facilities and has cut the population in the detention facilities by about 50 percent. Cameras have been installed to protect the workers and the youths in custody, Ms. Carrión said.

Workers are required to report every instance in which they use physical restraint, and Ms. Carrión receives a weekly summary. “I read them, and I think everybody holds their breath,” she said. “Because if it goes up, they hear from me.”

But many workers have resisted the changes, arguing that limits on physical force have put them at risk, pointing to a rise in workplace injuries among agency employees. They also argue that Ms. Carrión underestimates the danger that many youths in custody pose to themselves and others, and that community-based programs are not equipped to handle them.

“The youth are there because they have committed crimes,” Mr. Brynien said. “Many of them pled down from violent crimes. Some of them are larger than the staff, some are involved in gangs. To portray them as children who are locked away and shouldn’t be is a very oversimplified view.”

Despite the harsh spotlight on her agency, Ms. Carrión still seems to have the support of her boss, Governor Paterson, who praised the task force’s report as well as Ms. Carrión, saying she “has done everything possible to provide better care for the mentally disabled.”

Ms. Carrión’s efforts may get a boost when the state finishes negotiating a plan to address the problems in its juvenile justice system with the Department of Justice, which could compel the agency to institute a more aggressive overhaul.

“This is like a huge ship,” Ms. Carrión said. “Trying to turn it around is very difficult.”


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Posted in: News on December 20, 2009 @ 3:02 PM

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