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Bay Area juvenile hall mistreats youths with disabilities, suit says

BERKELEY — Advocacy groups filed a class-action federal lawsuit against Contra Costa County and its juvenile hall, alleging that youths with disabilities had been denied educational and other services and held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day — in some cases for months.

Los Angeles-based Public Counsel and Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates teamed with a private law firm to bring the suit, contending that although one-third of students at the juvenile hall were deemed by authorities to have disabilities requiring special education, many did not receive those services or related services.

Furthermore, the suit argued that the Martinez, Calif., facility had replaced detailed "individual education programs" for special ed students with scaled-down "cookie-cutter" services. It also asserted that the juvenile hall did not craft required behavior-intervention plans for those with special needs, and that it failed to conduct mandatory assessments to determine whether the actions that landed young people in solitary were related to their disabilities.

"Defendants have systematically discriminated against youth with disabilities and deprived them of the most basic access to education in violation of federal and state laws," said the suit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Oakland. "Illegal deprivations" of educational and rehabilitative services, it said, were "rampant and widespread."

Calls for comment to the offices of the county counsel and the county probation officer were not returned Thursday. However, plaintiffs' attorneys said officials have maintained that the facility has the discretion to place youths in solitary confinement and deny services because of security concerns.

Solitary can cause those with mental health issues to further deteriorate, and denying access to most or all educational services dooms youths to a cycle of failure, the attorneys said at a news conference.

Laura Faer, Public Counsel's statewide education rights director, described the cells as cramped, with a "narrow window the size of your arm." She said the isolation practices more closely mirror those of adult prisons than any other known juvenile facility in California.

A similar suit over access to education resulted in a settlement with Los Angeles County's Challenger Memorial Youth Center in 2010. Faer called Contra Costa County's circumstances "far more egregious than what we've seen in other places."

The suit filed Thursday was brought on behalf of three currently incarcerated plaintiffs. It asked the court to allow them to bring a class action on behalf of "former, current and future" residents of the 290-bed facility whose school — called Mt. McKinley — enrolls about 1,300 students a year.

"We want the county to follow the law," said Grace Carter, a partner in the firm of Paul Hastings, which is assisting with the case. The suit seeks a permanent injunction to compel the county to provide educational and other supportive services to current as well as former residents "so these kids can begin to recover from what the county has done."

According to California statute, juvenile hall "shall not be deemed to be, nor be treated as, a penal institution" but rather as a "safe and supportive homelike environment." The California Supreme Court has determined the facilities exist "solely for the purpose of rehabilitation and not punishment."

Education is key, and providing it mandatory.

Among the plaintiffs is G.F., a 14-year-old girl who entered juvenile hall last year and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She has spent approximately 100 days in solitary confinement, where she often received no education — much less special education — the suit contends.

It also describes the experience of W.B., a 17-year-old boy who was found mentally incompetent by the juvenile court but, the suit says, came into the facility without a behavioral plan and was not assessed for services. It says he was placed in solitary confinement for 90 days over a four-month period, where he began "hearing voices, and talking to himself, and he believed his medications and food were being used to poison him," yet was kept in solitary.

Eventually, the suit says, the teen had a psychotic episode during which he smeared feces on the cell wall and was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility for three weeks. He currently is under evaluation for schizophrenia and back in juvenile hall.

"These are kids that need help," his mother said in a videotaped interview played Thursday, her face obscured to protect her son's anonymity. "A lot of them are crying out for help, and no one is helping them."

The third plaintiff, Q.G., has been eligible for special education services since he was in third grade and has been diagnosed with oppositional defiance disorder and ADHD, the suit said. Now 17, he arrived at the facility in November 2010 with an individual education program that called for extensive daily services. But Mt. McKinley reduced his specialized academic instruction to 90 minutes per week and eliminated his mental health services and behavioral support plan, the suit said.

During extensive stretches in solitary confinement, "he just sits there every day doing nothing," his mother said in a recorded interview. "He's [taken] like 10 steps backward."

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