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Positive COVID-19 test for youth at juvenile detention center sparks alarm among lawyers and advocates

Tuesday, April 07, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Megan Crepeau and Annie Sweeney

 

Positive COVID-19 test for youth at juvenile detention center sparks alarm among lawyers and advocates

By ANNIE SWEENEY and MEGAN CREPEAU

CHICAGO TRIBUNE |

APR 07, 2020 | 11:00 AM

Attorneys were expected to seek more hearings this week on behalf of youths housed in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in the wake of the troubling news that the first young person in custody there had tested positive for COVID-19.

“We continuously said it was not a matter of if, it is a matter of when,” said Cathryn Crawford, the litigation director for the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, who said she would be seeking hearings on behalf of clients. “I suspect there are more children who could be released if they would look at things through a slightly different lens.”

The Cook County public defender’s office also had scheduled some 40 hearings this week, even before yesterday’s news that a 16-year-old had tested positive. Seven hearings were held Monday with five releases secured, and more were under consideration, officials said Tuesday.

The public defender’s office said they have represented 31 juveniles who have been ordered released as part of expedited reviews after nearly 100 hearings last month. The office said judges have been granting releases on electronic monitoring for “a fair number” of minors coming into the system on new cases.

“And where they haven’t, we are asking for reconsideration of detention this week,” said Peter Parry, a deputy Cook County public defender.

The announcement late Monday from Cook County officials that a 16-year-old in the detention center tested positive rattled attorneys who have already worked furiously over the past weeks, as the pandemic swept into adult jails and prisons, to seek releases of youth.

“I am pretty worried,” said attorney Cristina Law Merriman, who was in contact with a client just as the news broke Monday. “There has been a change in tone, the way (he) is feeling. JDTC is restricting what they can do more and more.”

While there is a national push to release inmates and detainees from jails and prisons to protect them from contracting the virus, the worry about the juvenile population is complicated by the fact that they are increasingly isolated by restrictions dictated by CDC guidelines calling for social distancing. Visits, school attendance and in-person programming has been canceled.

Youth at the detention center have been given teaching packets provided by teachers and have access to mental health services. Arts programming is available via video. But Law Merriman has heard reports of some detainees who are eating alone in their rooms and that watching television is their primary activity.

Such restriction on movement and personal contacts was seen as a risk for young people children who have already experienced trauma.

This concern was raised in a letter signed by dozens of advocates and attorneys and released just hours before officials announced the positive test. The letter to Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans and Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke called for an increase in the pace of court reviews and more releases.

“We recommend that you prioritize general public health and safety and the physical and mental health of detained youth, reviewing each young person for any possible release options that can reduce traumatic stress and risk of disease,” reads the letter that is signed by the legal and social service organizations, including the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern Law School.

“We are concerned that the longer we wait, the more probable it is that there will be a devastating outbreak of COVID-19 in the JTDC, destabilizing the institution and preventing youth from accessing safety and care.”

The population at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center has dropped by about 40 detainees since March 15 to 168 as of Monday, according to a statement from Evans.

But it was unclear how many youth had been released in response to the pandemic. Reviews for release at the detention center are held with regularity.

Advocates were hoping to build quickly on momentum to release youths.

“We are aware of several efforts to review youth cases for release to shelter-in-place at home. However, despite an increase in detention review hearings during the last week of March, many youth remain in custody,” the letter states.

Merriman, who also works for the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, which represents youth and young adults, has tried multiple times to free clients, including twice on behalf of a teen being held because he was a passenger in a stolen car, a misdemeanor violation, she said.

"I think it is just absurd that a kid who is presumed innocent is being held on a nonviolent misdemeanor,” she said. “I am really appalled because there have been all these directives from (the court system), expressing that those are the people we should be reviewing detention for.”

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As it happens

The teen who tested positive was admitted to the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on March 30 and by Saturday had a fever and a headache, officials said. The youth was moved from the holding area designated for new residents into the medical unit after showing symptoms, according to a statement from the chief judge’s office Monday, and was never in the facility’s general population.

The youth was to remain in the medical unit until April 18. Six other residents who had contact with the teen will be tested for the virus, officials said, and they will not be admitted to general population until the same date at the earliest.

A new policy requires that juveniles admitted to the facility stay in a receiving area for 14 days before being moved to the general population, officials have said. New admissions are screened for COVID-19 exposure; anyone who says they may have been exposed, or who has a fever, will not enter the facility “until medical clearance is granted,” according to the news release from the chief judge.

Also Monday, the office of the chief judge announced two new cases of employees who tested positive, including one who works at the center and another who works for Juvenile Probation and Court Services there.

asweeney@chicagotribune.com

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com



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