More must be done for justice-involved children amid COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 Policy Analysis: As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, OK Policy will be analyzing state and federal policies that impact our state and its residents during this national health emergency. These posts reflect the most current information available at publication, and we will update or publish follow-ups as new information becomes available.

NOTE: OK Policy is not a state agency and we cannot assist in applying for state services or provide legal advice.

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UPDATE (April 16, 2020): The Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA) issued a report on April 14, 2020 updating the OJA Board on their response to COVID-19. They are taking action to address all recommendations outlined below, as well as, coordinating with group homes, detention centers, and shelters. This post has been updated to reflect the number of children currently in custody and newly public information on measures taken by state and local juvenile justice agencies.

 

Over the past weeks, state leaders have scrambled to address the COVID-19 outbreak. Governor Stitt, the Oklahoma Supreme Court, and several state departments — public health, education, public safety, election board — have all taken recent emergency action. While many areas of public concern have been at the forefront of local media coverage, juvenile justice has received far less attention. As our state leaders work to address this pandemic, we cannot leave behind Oklahoma children in custody.

Oklahoma’s juvenile officials should publicly share their emergency plan for addressing COVID-19. These plans should include providing communication to children on COVID-19, reducing the number of children in facilities, standardized protocol and procedures for disinfecting facilities, unlimited phone contact with family, and ensuring support when they return home. Many of these measures are similar to measures needed within the adult justice system, but can be further complicated when dealing with minors. 

Before being placed into custody, many of these children have experienced high rates of trauma and additional service needs. Once in custody they face many of the harsh realities as those in the adult justice system — inadequate staffing, medical care, and sanitation. 

The Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA) reports 364 children currently in custody. The average age of children in custody is fifteen, but facilities hold children as young as twelve — or sometimes younger if they have nowhere else to go.

While OJA is the state juvenile justice agency, there are many involved in detention and release decisions across the state, such as judges, district attorneys, juvenile bureaus, detention facility administrators and staff, and more.   

We must also ensure that justice-involved children can be safely released in a timely manner and not held indefinitely during this crisis. Justice-involved children typically must be seen before a judge to be released. With court hearings suspended until at least May 15, 2020, these children could remain at a treatment facility until they are granted an emergency hearing or court resumes. This will only lead to further spread of COVID-19, put our young people at risk, and cause further uncertainty for Oklahoma families.

Children in custody need Oklahoma leaders to take strong and consistent preventative action. Populations of young people are in two secure state facilities for children, 12 group homes, and 15 county detention centers across the state. The majority of facilities have stopped all physical visitation. Providing children with unlimited phone contact with family is an essential service. Many juvenile facilities already deal with a lack of technological updates and staffing shortages. At most facilities, virtual visits are not possible because of lack of technology, even if parents have access. Without additional staff, most facilities will have little or no capacity for an increase in telephone visits. It is important for all facility administrators and staff to prioritize keeping children in contact with their families.

The pandemic has forced a drastic change for our society. For the majority of parents, they can keep their children at home. They may struggle to adjust to social distancing, educating their children at home, and balancing work responsibilities, but the families are staying together. The same cannot be said for justice-involved families. The current lack of consistency and transparency regarding juvenile cases only adds further uncertainty.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashley Harvey joined OK Policy as the justice data analyst for Open Justice Oklahoma in September 2018. A native Oklahoman, she received her B.S. and M.S. from Oklahoma State University-Tulsa in Human Development and Family Science. She previously worked as a research assistant for OSU’s Center for Family Resilience evaluating various community and grant funded projects. As an Albert Schweitzer Fellow, she developed and implemented a family strengthening initiative within Tulsa County Juvenile Detention Center. Ashley is an alumna of OK Policy’s 2017 Summer Policy Institute. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. from OSU, where her research interests include family and community impacts of the justice system. She lives in the Tulsa area with her husband, Bryan, and their two children.

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