COVID-19 outbreaks in AZ child detention centers worry advocates
As COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations continue to reach record levels in Arizona, some advocates worry that children in detention and rehabilitation centers are at risk and in the blind spot of public health agencies that are grappling with a furious spread of the illness in the broader community.
Arizona is the site of one of the largest outbreaks at a child rehabilitation center in the country, with the Mingus Mountain Academy having 92 confirmed COVID-19 cases among the children it houses. Another 20 staff members tested positive for the virus.
All of the children recovered in April, said Yavapai County Community Health Services Spokeswoman Perri Farneti, and 15 of the 20 staffers have recovered, according to a spokeswoman for Sequel Youth and Family Services, the company that runs the Mingus Mountain Academy.
Even though the outbreak is no longer active, watchdog groups are still concerned.
"The outbreak in Mingus is a clear public health crisis, but it is a clear moral crisis, as well," Ricky Watson, executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network, told Arizona Mirror.
Juvenile detention centers in the past have been hotbeds of issues related to cleanliness and infections.
Farneti said Yavapai County's focus is on testing in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and said no additional guidelines had been given to Mingus Mountain Academy in the wake of the outbreak.
The outbreak is believed to have initially begun because one girl who fell ill had been on a bus with several other girls who also contracted the illness, Farneti said. It is unclear how the first girl was initially exposed to the virus.
Sequel operates 57 facilities across 20 states, including 3 in Arizona. The company, which went public in 2017, is estimated to be worth approximately $423 million.
Privatization of juvenile detention centers varies by state. Some states, like Florida, have a large number of private facilities, while others none. Florida juvenile detention centers have seen a spike in COVID within their walls.
However, centers like the Mingus Mountain Academy differ from centers run by the state in a few key ways.
"Unsurprisingly, private facilities are trying to make money for their shareholders," Alyson Clements, director of membership and advocacy for the National Juvenile Justice Network, said.
Private facilities also have less oversight than a publicly run facility, which would have to directly answer to lawmakers, public officials and be subject to public records requests.
For advocates like Clements and Watson, an industry that makes money off incarcerating children is incentivized to work in favor of those incarcerated.
Another growing concern for advocates is how companies like Sequel are dealing with the virus. When asked what additional steps the company is taking after the outbreak, the spokeswoman for Mingus Mountain Academy directed the Mirror to a statement released several months ago.
"Mingus continues to follow all public health and CDC guidance for COVID-19 and encourages all students and employees to maintain social distancing protocols across the campus," the statement says.
Some of the steps Mingus Mountain Academy has taken includes postponing admissions starting at the end of April, measuring employee temperatures, increasing time allotted to students for phone calls to family members and procuring additional personal protective equipment.
Advocates worry that, at congregate settings like those in child detention centers, social distancing is nearly impossible; as a result, the facilities have resorted to mandatory isolation for children at detention centers in other states. Sequel would not answer questions about whether it used isolation to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Solitary confinement has been mostly removed as a tool from juvenile detention centers across the nation, but COVID-19 has led many centers to move towards "medical isolation," which advocates say is a new form of solitary confinement.
Additionally, in Arizona and most places across the country, family visitation has been cancelled due to safety concerns over the virus.
These combined factors have led to increased violence in some centers, and in one case, a mass escape attempt.
The American Society of Pediatrics has released guidelines that they hope facilities and policymakers look at in order to guide how these facilities operate during the pandemic, including releasing some youth, reducing admissions, limiting isolation and ensuring access to legal counsel.
Sequel has a checkered safety record. Most recently in Michigan, three staff members were charged with causing the death of a 16-year-old boy who was killed after two of them put their weight across his chest.
Cornelius Fredericks was killed after uttering "I can't breathe" while he was being restrained at a facility run by Sequel, according to a lawsuit filed by the family. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services ended up pulling Sequel's license for the facility where Fredericks died.
Sequel has also come under fire for its hiring practices, as some children have been subjected to sexual misconduct by its staff and other states like Minnesota have come under scrutiny for sending children in their care to out-of-state Sequel facilities.
A lawsuit against one of Sequel's now-closed facilities in Utah shed light on how some staff members allegedly encouraged some children to harm others during a riot and had abused others.
Last year, at a Tennessee Sequel location, 18 children were removed from one of their facilities by the state's Department of Child Services.
Another child detention facility in Arizona, not run by Sequel, has also reported a large number of COVID cases.
In Queen Creek, 23 students and 8 staff members were confirmed to have the virus at the Canyon State Academy. A staff member speaking anonymously with AzFamily said that the facility didn't follow proper protocols and some staffers who tested positive were asked to work in an isolated cottage with students who later tested positive.
Advocates like Watson though worry about the developing bodies of those in youth facilities and their pleas being ignored.
"We just don't know but we do know that we are seeing these outbreaks in facilities run by these corporations," Watson said.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.