On Tuesday, officials in Yolo County, Calif., agreed to keep open a juvenile detention facility for undocumented immigrant youth after a report revealed that many youth there have unmet mental health issues.
The Yolo County Board of Supervisors had discussed the possibility of terminating its contract with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) because of a recent uptick in violent incidents at the facility. Instead of ending the deal early, the supervisors voted 3-1 to pursue the possibility of amending the contract.
The recommended changes in contract include a lower detainee-to-staff ratio and the provision of additional services to address the mental health needs of the ORR youth, many of whom have experienced significant trauma and marginalization prior to arriving at Yolo’s Juvenile Detention Facility (JDF), which is overseen by the Yolo County Probation Department.
“I’m not ready to terminate the contract at this point, but we can’t continue the way it is,” said Supervisor Don Saylor, vice chair of the board. “We want to have this program in place only if it’s beneficial to the kids involved, and only if it can be done safely for our staff.”
The three-year, $9 million contract is set to expire in 2020.
Since 2008, ORR, the federal agency that assumes custody over unaccompanied immigrant minors, has contracted with Yolo County to use their secure facility to detain undocumented youth who meet ORR’s secure placement criteria, which says kids can only be placed in secure facilities if they have been charged with a crime or pose a danger to themselves or others. These children have not received a court hearing for their crimes, but remain detained because of their status as unaccompanied immigrant minors.
Yolo’s facility is one of just two secure placement options for undocumented youth under federal custody. The other is located in Staunton, Va.
In recent years, ORR has begun sending kids and teens who are aggressive and struggling with mental illness, according to a report from Chief Probation Officer Brent Cardell.
“These high-needs youths require a secure treatment program to appropriately address their issues, a level of care that does not exist within the ORR network,” the report says, noting that secure placement facilities are not conducive to providing mental health treatment for kids who are highly traumatized and facing great uncertainty about their futures.
Holly Cooper, co-director of the Immigration Law Center at the University of California-Davis, said in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change that more services for kids in need is a good thing, but that “many children develop psychological issues as a direct result of prolonged detention and are strung along by the federal government about their release date. Thus, enhanced services to detained children don’t address the root causes of their trauma.”
The county is seeking to reduce the number of ORR detainees from 24 to 16 in an effort to provide closer supervision and mitigate the incidence of violence among detainees. According to Cardell’s report, ORR youth are three times more likely to assault staff than the general population detained in JDF.
These behavioral issues, as well as criticisms on the treatment of detained ORR youth, have become a heavy burden on probation staff and county resources, according to Cardell, though the kids detained in Yolo through the ORR program come from all over the country.
The program came under fire last year in federal court after a gang crackdown landed several undocumented youth in JDF’s ORR beds, though the feds failed to verify their gang involvement or criminal charges — a requirement for placement in a secure facility.
Supervisor Saylor addressed this history during Tuesday’s discussions, insisting that the facility could not simply accept “whatever kid off the street who got picked up for wearing the wrong colored T-shirt.”
Cooper, who represented Yolo’s detained youth in that 2017 lawsuit, cites a lack of due process for the kids as a core issue with the ORR program.
“Children don’t know why they are detained, are detained on flimsy evidence, and are not informed of when they will be released,” Cooper said.
In the April 3 meeting, Saylor said, “Due process in this administration is a key for our continued service.”
Yolo County probation staff will check to see if ORR is amenable to the recommended contract changes and report back at the next Board of Supervisors meeting, scheduled for April 24.
The supervisors indicated that if the recommended changes are agreed upon and implemented, Yolo will continue providing services on a trial basis for the duration of the 2018-19 fiscal year.