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Attorneys call for universal COVID-19 testing in juvenile detentions

DJS says it's not necessary
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Posted at 8:27 PM, May 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-19 18:50:10-04

With an outbreak confirmed at a youth facility in Carroll County, the Office of the Public Defender Juvenile Protection Division issued a letter Monday calling for all 192 children in the care of the Department of Juvenile Services to be tested for COVID-19.

“The constant flow of both staff and youth in and out of these facilities—where large numbers of children are housed in close proximity—means that a powerful virus like COVID-19 can take over quickly and easily,” said Deborah St. Jean, JPD Chief and author of the letter. “To protect our clients, DJS staff, private facility staff, and the communities where these facilities are located, the Office of the Public Defender is requesting that DJS proactively test for COVID-19 all youth housed in DJS detention facilities and all youth committed to DJS and placed in any public or private facility within the state of Maryland or out-of-state.”

The Secretary of DJS responded in a letter to the Office of the Public Defender late Tuesday afternoon, saying the department has the capacity to test all youth, but health experts don't think it's necessary and proactive infection control is more important.

Over half of the DJS facilities in Maryland have had staff, youth or both test positive. All five youth who tested positive have recovered without the need for hospitalization.

"Given that the first child in Baltimore died of coronavirus earlier this week, a 15-year-old young woman, we are very concerned that when you don’t do universal testing, when corona does come into a facility, it moves like wildfire," said Chief Attorney for the Baltimore Office of the Public Defender's Juvenile division Jenny Egan.

The call for testing comes after a confirmed outbreak at the Silver Oak Academy detention facility in Carroll County. It's privately-run but licensed by DJS.

Egan said they raised concerns twice to DJS about the facility’s insufficient COVID-19 response, after hearing from the young people living there.

"They were still being forced to hold hands and told to hold hands at the sort of opening and closing of every day, you know when everyone stands in a circle and holds hands. They were continuing to play contact sports where everyone was touching," said Egan.

Silver Oak Academy (SOA) said in a statement they followed CDC guidelines regarding hygiene, sanitation, social distancing, and use of masks to avoid COVID-19 exposure. Still, they had a staff member and student test positive last week, prompting universal testing on Friday, resulting in 41 positive cases.

They said the majority of the positive cases did not have symptoms, which worries Egan because right now DJS only tests youth with symptoms.

"Our concern is that DJS continues to treat kids rather than testing them with solitary confinement. Solitary confinement will cause lifelong harm in some of the young people who are experiencing it. They are extremely distressed. They are going into mental health crises," said Egan.

The Secretary of DJS responded in a letter to the Office of the Public Defender late Tuesday afternoon, saying they will continue to follow guidance from health experts and proactive infection control is more important than universal testing, which includes isolation of positive patients.

"Overall, time-tested mitigation measures, not universal testing, make juvenile facilities safer during this pandemic," said Secretary Sam Abed. "I recognize that being in a room isolated from others is difficult for anyone. To alleviate the
stress of the handful of youth that have tested positive for COVID-19 and required to be medically isolated,
DJS has provided hand-held games and cell phones for youth to call family while they recover."

Abed also said universal testing was needed at Silver Oak Academy because they were inconsistent in implementing mask and social distancing protocols and if circumstances like those are replicated at a DJS facility, they will consider testing everyone.

"Contrast the response at SOA to the response from other local health departments when DJS has previously reported a positive COVID-19 case at its facilities. Because mitigation measures were largely followed at those DJS facilities, the local health departments did not see the need to universally test the entire facility due to the fact that the exposure to the positive youth or staff was minimal to non-existent," said Abed.

The full letter from the Office of the Public Defender can be read below.

Reach the full response from DJS below.