SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge approved a $2.5 million settlement that prohibits a Bay Area juvenile detention center from using 24-hour solitary confinement as punishment and requires assessment, treatment and education for children with disabilities.
Three guardians sued Contra Costa County and its Office of Education in August 2013, on behalf of children at the county's Juvenile Hall in Martinez.
"Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall, like all juvenile halls in the state, exists 'solely for the purpose of rehabilitation and not punishment' for young people who have gotten off track," according to the 62-page class action complaint. "Indeed, juvenile hall 'shall not be deemed to be, nor be treated as, a penal institution. It shall be a safe and supportive homelike environment.'"
But the three class representatives, identified by their initials, claimed the county has a pattern and practice of throwing children with emotional disabilities into 24-hour solitary lockdown and denying them mental health care and basic education.
They claim the county and its Office of Education use solitary confinement to punish children who act out or have altercations with other kids. In fact, the class claimed, the county uses solitary confinement as an "administrative convenience" for "staffing shortages," in violation of state and federal laws, including the Disabilities Education Improvement Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Contra Costa County and its Office of Education filed separate motions to dismiss in January 2014 and filed oppositions to class certification the next month.
The court deferred ruling on the motions based on "ongoing efforts to reach a settlement."
In June this year, plaintiffs' attorney Mary-Lee Smith, with Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, filed an unopposed motion for preliminary approval of separate settlements.
U.S. District Judge Maria-Elena James granted final approval on Nov. 25.
"This is a substantial victory, especially with probation [Juvenile Hall], where there is no more solitary confinement," Smith told Courthouse News on Tuesday.
Final approval sets into motion a series of sweeping policy changes aimed at ensuring Contra Costa County's Juvenile Hall comports with the state's intended purpose.
"Under the county agreement, probation staff will no longer use room confinement for discipline, punishment, administrative convenience, retaliation, staffing shortages or reasons other than a temporary response to behavior that threatens immediate harm to the youth or others," Judge James wrote in the 27-page order.
The agreement prohibits staff from confining detainees for more than four hours and requires administrators and staff to develop "special individualized programming" for children who need it.
"Special individualized programming includes the development of any individualized plan designed to improve the youth's behavior, which is created in consultation with the youth, Contra Costa County Mental Health staff, and the youth's family members, when available," James wrote.
The agreement also calls for increased coordination between staff, the Office of Education and County Mental Health, and initiation of special education and counseling services.
The changes are to be implemented over 18 months and monitored by two professionals: Prof. Barry Krisberg, director of research and policy at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute at UC Berkeley's School of Law; and Prof. Edward Latissa, director of the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati.
"These leading national experts will put forth recommendations of how to deal with children with disabilities, how to provide accommodations to deal with disability-related behavior," Smith said. "All in all, if everything goes according to plan - which it should because there are a lot of safeguards - we believe there should be a successful transition from how things use to be, to Juvenile Hall becoming a model facility."
James also approved $1,340,000 in attorneys' fees and costs.
The Office of Education's settlement requires it to retain an expert knowledgeable in the Rehabilitation Act, the ADA and California law.
The expert will review policies and practices to identify youths with "suspected" disabilities who end up at Juvenile Hall, and how, and what kind of education is provided for them.
"Based on this review, the expert will develop a report that will include all proposed revisions to policies, procedures and practices he or she recommends," James wrote.
The Office of Education must designate at least one employee as an "ADA Coordinator," charged with ensuring compliance with federal law.
The Office of Education must pay $1,165,000 in attorneys' fees and costs.
"The conditions were egregious, to say the least," Smith said. "Obviously, we are really pleased they came to a settlement and are willing to make changes that are necessary to ensure the environment [at Juvenile Hall] and their practices will come to an end."
Deputy County Counsel D. Cameron Baker did not return a phone call Tuesday.
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