A scenario feared by parents and advocates for months came true Thursday, when two teenagers incarcerated in Los Angeles County juvenile halls were confirmed to be infected with coronavirus, just days after testing began for all new arrivals, officials said.
The teens are now being housed in isolation at Central Juvenile Hall in Boyle Heights and the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, and hold the dubious distinction of being the first confirmed cases of infected youth in the county’s juvenile detention centers. Neither of the two young people appears to have symptoms of the coronavirus, according to Adam Wolfson of the Probation Department.
Previously, probation officials confirmed that nine staff members at the Nidorf Juvenile Hall have also tested positive for the virus.
Wolfson said with the latest cases, the risk of infection to the 369 other youth in the juvenile halls is low, because the two teens tested positive upon arrival at the facilities, and they have been quarantined.
But that doesn’t comfort advocates who have been urging county leaders to release hundreds of young people who remained locked up despite the looming threat of a widespread outbreak in what they’ve described as “human petri dishes.”
“It’s not assuring that these youth haven’t come into contact with other youth,” said Patricia Soung, director of youth justice policy at Children’s Defense Fund-California. There are human chains of contact “in an enclosed institutional space,” she added, “and in such an environment everyone becomes a potential carrier.”
There are signs of such contagion at other locked facilities nearby. Last month, The Chronicle of Social Change reported that five teens in a locked psychiatric facility at Star View Health Center tested positive for the coronavirus, as well as 22 staff members. Young people at Star View are confined not because of juvenile arrests, but because of severe mental health challenges.
They are among the nearly 30,000 coronavirus cases that have mushroomed over the past two months in America’s most populous county. Since March, more than 1,400 Los Angeles County residents have died after being infected by the coronavirus, more than half of all fatalities in the state.
On March 16, the number of youth held in L.A.’s juvenile halls and camps was 822. But as pressure on local officials has intensified during the pandemic, today that number is 550, according to county data. The 33 percent drop is due in part to the probation department and the juvenile courts working to release some youth who are medically vulnerable or near the end of their sentence.
But advocates want more young people freed due to the growing threat of infection. On April 14, two petitioners — the Independent Juvenile Defender Program and the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at Loyola Law School — filed a lawsuit with the California Supreme Court on behalf of young people incarcerated at the county’s juvenile halls and camps, seeking more and quicker releases from the dangerous conditions in group detention centers.
That case will be heard remotely on Monday.
Josh Rovner, a senior advocacy associate at the Sentencing Project who has been tracking outbreaks of COVID-19 at juvenile detention facilities across the country, at least 246 incarcerated youth have tested positive for the coronavirus. Rovner’s findings, published through tweets, include 29 confirmed cases at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Virginia and 26 cases at Memphis Center for Independence in Tennessee. At least 405 staff who work at juvenile justice facilities have also tested positive since the start of the pandemic in March, according to Rovner.
Both of the young people who have confirmed cases of coronavirus in Los Angeles County were tested as they entered the juvenile halls, part of a new set of protocols put in place this week by the Juvenile Court Health Services, a medical division overseen by the county’s probation department.
According to the new rules, all teens who enter juvenile halls are now being tested for the coronavirus, and are kept apart from the other youth at the facilities. A total of 51 youth held in L.A. juvenile detention facilities have been tested so far. Of those, 21 youth were already detained who had shown COVID-19 symptoms, and 30 were tested this week after entering the lockups.
Probation officials did not release additional information on the age, gender or charging offenses of the two infected teens.
But for many youth justice advocates, the new testing policy doesn’t go far enough. Kim McGill of the L.A.-based Youth Justice Coalition said testing should be administered to all youth in juvenile detention, not just those who are newly entering. She said her organization has received a steady stream of calls and texts from panicked family members of youth locked up in juvenile detention, wondering if they have contracted COVID-19.
“The fact that not everyone is getting tested is making a lot of families very worried that there may be many more cases,” McGill said. “But they wouldn’t know because they’re quarantining a lot of youth, but not testing everybody.”
Advocates say the positive cases revealed Thursday offer more than enough evidence that the Probation Department should step up its efforts to release more youth from detention.
“We’re asking them that they be courageous for the health of young people and the well-being of families,” McGill said. “This isn’t the time to be concerned about covering themselves politically with the rest of the county.”
Jeremy Loudenback can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.