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NEWS from the Office of the New York State Comptroller
Contact: Press Office 518-474-4015

DiNapoli Audit: Growing Number of Youth in Juvenile Justice Centers at Risk Due to Staff Shortages

Audit Found Increased Incidents of Self-Harm and Contraband Drugs, Along With Lapses in Staff Training and Physical, Mental Health Assessments

April 4, 2024

Ongoing staff shortages in juvenile justice centers around New York state are potentially putting youth at risk, according to an audit from New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. The population in secure juvenile justice facilities has grown, straining staff’s ability to properly assess the physical and mental health of youth at intake as physical altercations, illegal drug use, and incidents of self-harm rise.

“This audit found some very troubling problems in our state’s juvenile justice centers,” DiNapoli said. “These facilities are meant to provide safe housing and services to help rehabilitate young people and discourage them from future criminal behavior. Unfortunately, staff appears to be overwhelmed and short-handed, which may account for missed or delayed opportunities to provide care for the physical or mental health issues facing the young people in these facilities.”

The state Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) runs nine residential juvenile justice facilities through its Division of Juvenile Justice and Opportunities for Youth (DJJOY), including three secure facilities. Following a decline of 44% in the number of youth in these facilities from 2013 to 2018, the number of youth in the facilities rose nearly 74% from 2018 through 2022. It was during this period New York’s Raise the Age legislation was phased in, which increased the age of criminal responsibility to 18, to help ensure that youth who commit non-violent crimes were given age-appropriate housing and services to lower the risk they reoffend.

The audit looked at six facilities and found that OCFS did not do enough to ensure youth were properly assessed when they entered facilities or that staff were up to date on the training required to be authorized to restrain youth.

Admission assessments and screenings are vital for identifying and providing appropriate care and services for physical or mental health issues that youth may have when admitted, including substance abuse problems. Youth in custody have rates of substance abuse disorders ranging from 37% to 86%, according to the National Institute of Corrections. High numbers of incarcerated youth experience depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia and those with co-occurring disorders are at increased risk of death by suicide.

Auditors examined records for 101 youths and found 53 lacked evidence of at least one required screening having been completed. Medical admission checklists were missing, along with preliminary physical and mental health interviews and orientation checklists, which connect youth to education and vocational services. At least one assessment or screening was completed late for 44 youths. It took 271 days, or nearly nine months, for one youth to undergo a medical assessment, which is required to be done within seven days of admission.

From Jan. 1, 2019 to Dec. 31, 2022, certain types of incidents in the facilities increased. For example, for the secure facilities, there were no reported instances of controlled substance contraband in 2019 but there were 37 incidents in 2022. Positive drug tests were up 24% over that period. Instances of self-harm rose 100% in secure facilities over the period from 24 to 48 instances. Among these, the number that included an expression or gesture of suicide was up 667%, from three to 23 incidents.

Staff are supposed to be up to date on their CPR/first aid and crisis prevention and management (CPM) training so they can properly restrain youth when necessary and minimize injuries. From Oct. 1, 2018 to April 30, 2023 there were 2,455 incidents involving a restraint. Of those, 1,789 (73%) resulted in an injury to youth or staff. A review of 162 employees involved in 96 restraint incidents found 54% were not up to date on CPR/first aid and/or CPM training. The staff members’ CPM training was overdue from two days to over two years. Officials said ongoing staff shortages since the pandemic have prevented employees from keeping up to date on their training.

When physical restraint is used, the incident is supposed to be reviewed and recorded in forms with a goal of determining whether the event was handled properly and to reduce the likelihood that future incidents will escalate to physical intervention. Auditors looked at 106 restraint incidents and found 22 were not recorded in the facility’s restraint log as required, that nine were missing a Restraint Monitoring form, and that six were missing an Administrative Review form. Officials said the information missing from the 22 restraint logs was recorded, but in a separate digital database.

Auditors found that at the six facilities visited, physical conditions within living quarters, bathrooms, common areas, and medical service areas were adequately maintained and in functioning condition.

DiNapoli’s audit recommended that OCFS ensure intake assessments are completed and done on time, that staff training is up to date, and that complete records are kept of restraint incidents. The audit also recommended OCFS determine the staffing levels needed to properly look after the health and safety of incarcerated youth and increase efforts and focus resources to meet those levels.

In response, OCFS cited staffing shortages that stem from the pandemic and said it was exploring options to better train, prepare, and retain staff. The agency’s full response is included in the audit.

Office of Children and Family Services: Oversight of Juvenile Justice Facilities