Employees decry working conditions in juvenile facilities

DOVER — The Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families has made strides in recent years but continues to face difficulties hiring and keeping talented employees in many areas, agency officials said Thursday, while a few employees testified to the stress and even dangers they face at work.

Appearing before the Joint Finance Committee for a budget hearing, Secretary Josette Manning highlighted her agency’s mission and challenges.

A complex unit, the Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families handles a variety of sensitive issues, many of which are intertwined with other subjects or state entities. In fact, according to Ms. Manning, it is one of the few government entities in the country responsible for juvenile justice, welfare and mental health.

Perhaps the agency’s biggest area of need is in the Division of Youth Rehabilitative Services, which runs a half-dozen detention centers or related facilities. Gov. John Carney’s budget recommendations include up to 50 new positions for the division, although they would not be added unless existing vacancies are filled.

The spending plan for the current fiscal year contains about 170 position for front-line staff in the division, about 25 to 30 of which are vacant, officials said.

The single biggest impediment to bringing in new employees is pay, with salaries for division counselors (who have different duties than the stereotypical therapist or psychologist) generally beginning around $29,000. While the state has taken some steps to fix that and is now negotiating with the collective bargaining unit formed by employees in the division, many individuals find they can make more money elsewhere, often in an easier job.

“You will always have people who think that they want to do this work and then get into it and realize it’s not for them,” Ms. Manning said.

According to Donald McIlvain, a youth rehabilitation counselor supervisor at the Stevenson House Detention Center in Milford and the president of the union that covers workers in the division, staffers often face mandatory overtime, making an already difficult job even harder. Perhaps even worse, though, is the regular violence that occurs at the state facilities, Mr. McIlvain said.

After an inmate uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center three years ago, the state took new steps to fill empty correctional officer slots, including raising pay by more than $7,000 over two years.

With correctional officers starting at around $43,000 per year, the Department of Correction has become a more attractive place to work. That, Mr. McIlvain said, has led to some people from the Division of Youth Rehabilitative Services jumping ship.

“I am asked all the time by my members why we didn’t get the pay bump and I just tell them I guess when we have a tragedy we’ll get it,” he told the committee.

Jeff Crosby, a master treatment specialist at Ferris School in Wilmington and the union’s vice president, sounded a similar note. Riots are not uncommon, he and Mr. McIlvain said, and many employees go home with bruises or far worse, such as concussions or post-traumatic stress disorder.

But department officials pushed back against those claims. While Ms. Manning admitted the job can be very difficult and even dangerous, she said violence is not a regular occurrence.

Part of the issue stems from the fact counselors have more limits on how they can handle their charges than correctional officers do.

“It is not unusual for our staff to have to physically engage youth, and the reason for that is best practices within juvenile facilities requires that we not use pepper spray and mechanical restraints and the goal is to not use isolations, all things that adult correctional facilities have within their toolbox,” Ms. Manning said.

“We don’t use them because it’s not best practices, it’s not trauma-informed. So, we don’t do that.

“So, yes, when there are two youth about to engage in an argument in our facilities, that requires an adult to intervene and sometimes that’s physical intervention, whereas if that same incident happened in a correctional facility for adults … there would be a threat of pepper spray and that might dissipate that. So, you don’t have that physical contact as regularly as you probably do in juvenile facilities.”

Director John Stevenson said both sides agree pay should be higher and described some of the incidents cited by Mr. McIlvain as situations that could occur anywhere. Asked if the counselor was “cherry-picking,” he said that’s the case.

“He’s definitely picking the incidents that have drawn some attention, but as I said, that could happen in any juvenile justice system across the United States and has happened in those systems,” Mr. Stevenson said.

“It’s just, he’s using it to advance his cause to get salary and we’re always trying to advance those causes to get salary. We’ve done the hiring bonuses, we’ve done the referral bonuses, we’ve done 85 percent of midpoint, there’s a lot of things that have been done to try to advance that cause, and we’re not done. They just don’t like that we’re not done quick enough.”