Tennessean | “DCS proposed new rules for housing some youth, but advocates are worried.”

July 6, 2023

View original article here.

Published by Josh Keefe July 6, 2023.

DCS sought to implement stricter rules for hardware-secure residential facilities because some are currently operating under a more general, and less stringent, residential childcare license.

The Department of Children’s Services has proposed new rules to increase accountability for certain residential facilities, but watchdog groups warned Thursday the changes could open the door to more privatized youth prisons in Tennessee.

“We are concerned that this licensing category will result in more youth in privatized carceral settings without strict requirements for placement,” Zoe Jamail, policy coordinator for nonprofit Disability Rights Tennessee, said during a Thursday hearing on the proposed rules.

Jamail said the rules could create the “potential for the unnecessary institutionalization of youth with disabilities in facilities that are effectively exempt from requirements that are vital to the safety of children.”

In May, the Department of Children’s Services proposed new rules relating to how it licenses and regulates a wide swath of childcare organizations and facilities, including detention centers and group homes. Included in the rules is a new licensing subcategory: hardware secure residential childcare agencies (HSRCCAs). The term “hardware secure” refers to prison-like security conditions, the most restrictive setting the department can place a youth. The proposed rules note the facilities could include “fixed windows, perimeter security fencing and locked doors.”

The department sought to implement stricter rules for hardware-secure residential facilities because some are currently operating under a more general, and less stringent, residential childcare license, DCS spokesperson Alex Denis said. There are currently two facilities that would potentially fall under the proposed category, Hollis Academy and Mountain View Academy, both of which are operated by Wayne Halfway House. Those facilities are also currently subject to accrediting agency rules.

“We need to carve out a subset of rules that applies to them and puts guardrails in place,” Denis said, adding that the department was seeking to make sure its rules around the treatment of children were stricter than accrediting agencies.

Denis also said the department will likely include more clearly defined expectations in its final rules in response to comments made during Thursday’s hearing.

But critics worry the proposed licensing regime will allow private companies to open and run youth prisons with fewer regulations than apply to the state’s juvenile detention and youth development centers, which are also considered “hardware secure.”

Juvenile detention centers are akin to adult jails in the juvenile justice system: they are where youth are sometimes housed while waiting for a judge to hear their case. The department is currently finalizing rules it proposed last year regulating this type of facility.

Youth Development Centers are more like adult prisons. Youth are placed there after their cases have been fully adjudicated. The department operates Wilder Youth Development Center in Somerville, which has generated controversy for reports of unsafe conditionsabuse and frequent escapes.

But unlike the rules governing other types of hardware secure facilities, the proposed rules do not specify why a young person might be placed in an HSRCCA, Jamail said.

“The department’s rules don’t look anything like the department standards and requirements for other hardware secure facilities,” Jamail said. “There is nothing in the rules about minimum age, consideration of the youth’s disability or requiring an adjudication of delinquency or even an allegation of crime.”

The proposed rules are also less specific than rules for other hardware secure facilities with regards to the use of force, said Jasmine Miller, a staff attorney with the Youth Law Center.

“There are few requirements to protect youth from inappropriate usage of physical and mechanical restraints, chemical sprays and seclusion,” Miller said. “The idea that this kind of facility would be treated so differently from other hardware secure facilities is extremely concerning.”

But Miller did thank the department for some new items included in the proposed rules, including language that ensured youth in facilities be given underwear that belongs only to them.

“They don’t have to share underwear with their best friend or their worst enemy, or whoever else is living in the room next door,” Miller said. “I know to some people, that seems like small potatoes. But if you’re a kid who’s having to share underwear with everybody you know, it’s not small. It’s a really big deal.”

For further media inquiries please contact Lee Sherwood, Director of Community Relations and Development, at Disability Rights Tennessee via email at LeeS@DisabilityRightsTN.org or via voice call at 615-490-3844.