Additional staff requested for state’s juvenile detention centers

 

DOVER — The 29 new positions recommended in Gov. John Carney’s budget plan for juvenile centers are sorely needed, with issues in the facilities echoing many of the same problems faced by the state’s prisons, lawmakers and Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families officials said Thursday.

The six treatment and detention centers are understaffed and failing to provide the best treatment and services for youth, according to department administrators.

The Division of Youth Rehabilitative Services’ “residential facilities have constantly relied on casual/seasonal workers and mandatory overtime to fulfill staffing needs,” Division Deputy Director Renee Ciconte told the Joint Finance Committee in the agency’s annual budget hearing.

As a result, morale is low among employees, and the youth — “residents,” as one department official interjected when Rep. J.J. Johnson, D-New Castle, referred to “offenders” — do not receive some elements of the important rehabilitative care.

According to an analysis by the Statistical Analysis Center, there were 271 juveniles in Youth Rehabilitative Services’ centers in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available.

While 29 positions will help, they fail to solve the entire problem, officials said. Low pay and demanding responsibilities of the job make it hard to retain youth rehabilitative counselors, who provide direct services to juveniles in department facilities, and more positions will be needed in future budgets.

The division has 270 full-time and 89 casual/seasonal positions, although not all are filled. That tally includes 135 full-time and 62 casual/seasonal counselor positions. Eleven of each are vacant.

A majority of positions are assigned to either the New Castle County Detention Center in Wilmington or the William Marion Stevenson House Detention Center in Milford.

“The numbers that we are asking for are an attempt to bridge the gaps that we have and essentially it’s part of a multiple-year plan. So, it’s not as though we expect that we’re going to plug in these positions and that’s going to solve everything,” Secretary Josette Manning said after the budget hearing, referring to the 29 counselors and 30 additional caseworkers recommended by the governor.

Exactly how many more positions will be needed has yet to be determined.

While it’s not a certainty the positions are included by legislators in the final budget, the reaction of JFC members Thursday makes it quite likely.

Referring to the February 2017 inmate uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that killed one correctional officer, Sen. Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, said the state has to learn “lessons” from the incident.

Correctional officers had said for years they were understaffed and overworked and conditions at the state’s prisons were extremely poor. Those issues came to a head Feb. 1, 2017, when inmates seized control of Building C and took several workers hostage.

By the time authorities breached the building 19 hours later, Lt. Steven Floyd was dead.

It’s only in the wake of the rebellion that officials have begun making substantial reforms to the corrections department, including raising CO pay and adding more positions.

While Ms. Manning did not draw comparisons to Vaughn, she admitted the juvenile treatment and detention facilities could be safer.

“I worry every day about security in the facilities and I worry about the safety of our youth who are in care, and that’s probably never going to change, no matter how well-staffed we are,” Ms. Manning said. “However, certainly when we have staff in our facilities who are being frozen over from shift to shift, we have these increased needs for one-on-ones with youth that pull staff out of other areas and we have to reassign and do things like that, risk increases, of course.”

To increase retention rates, the department has worked to raise pay for Youth Rehabilitative Services employees. The governor’s budget proposal includes a $1,000 raise for most workers, including the agency’s counselors.

“Having the right number of workers fully functioning has been a challenge,” Ms. Manning told lawmakers.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, the Division of Youth Rehabilitative Services spent $2.3 million on overtime in the prior fiscal year.

The other 30 requested positions would go to the Division of Family Services to enable it to hire more caseworkers.

According to budget analyst Victoria Brennan, who provided a briefing to legislators on behalf of the Office of the Controller General before the hearing, the average caseworker is responsible for nearly 19 situations, well above the industry recommended standard of 11 per worker.

The agency has 178 caseworker positions currently, although 24 are vacant.

The new Family Services positions would also help the department reduce the 40-minute wait time for the child neglect hotline.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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