The Oversight: Who's Watching the Watchers? 

When New York City launched it’s Close to Home reform in 2012—removing city youth from state-run juvenile justice lockups and placing them instead in small, group-home-like residences within the city limits—it was in the wake of scandal: Federal investigators had found state facilities to be rife with abuse, granting staff near impunity for using violence against young inmates.

With Close to Home, the city proposed a smaller, more carefully watched system. Young people would remain near their families and lawyers, in programs focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

Formally, the system has two government agencies responsible for direct, ongoing oversight: The city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) watches over the nonprofit organizations that run Close to Home residences. And the state’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) oversees ACS, as well as controlling the licenses of the nonprofit providers.

But some advocates for New York City’s justice-involved youth worry that the system still isn’t safe enough. The government agencies responsible for overseeing Close to Home are required to report very little information to the public, and there is no independent entity charged with keeping a consistent eye on what happens in facilities. If the political winds change, they ask, what’s to protect young people from the abuses of the past?

Staff from both ACS and OCFS have spent a great deal of time in Close to Home facilities since they opened, according to city and state officials. During the program’s startup phase, visits were sometimes as frequent as once per week, says Nina Aledort, an OCFS associate commissioner who runs a dedicated Close to Home oversight office in New York City.

The goal of these visits is to check for the feel of a residence, as much as to look for code or contract violations. “When you walk through a program, does it feel tense, or is it humming?” Aledort asks. “What are young people complaining about? If it’s food, you’re running a good program. But if you’re hearing complaints that staff members have an attitude, or that young people are bored, that’s more serious.”  

OCFS also sends ombudsmen to visit Close to Home facilities, interviewing youth and reporting complaints to OCFS, ACS and provider agencies. Residents can report complaints through a 24-hour ombudsmen hotline, as well.

The city’s ACS maintains a hotline of its own, which providers must call every time there’s a fight or injury at a residence. Incidents get recorded in a database, checked by ACS leadership each day at 6am, according to Deputy Commissioner Felipe Franco, who runs juvenile justice programs for ACS. The administration has an operations unit available 24 hours a day to respond to problems as they come up.

City and state representatives say that constant communication allows them to work flexibly with providers, troubleshooting problems as they arise. For example, in the first year of Close to Home, providers struggled with particularly high AWOL rates and fights in houses for girls. OCFS formed a workgroup to develop more gender-specific programming, where providers could discuss challenges and share successful strategies.

Staff at residences report that city and state oversight for Close to Home programs is far more intensive than for other city-contracted programs for vulnerable kids, such as foster care.

“We have to report to ACS around all of our activities,” says Denise Hinds, who runs residential programs for Good Shepherd Services. “They review treatment records regularly, they’re meeting with our social workers. It's very collaborative, with a lot of conversation back and forth and a lot of support. Let’s say a young person goes home on a weekend and refuses to return. They're emailing us with suggestions or asking how they can help. I've been impressed by how many people have their hands in this." 

Neither ACS nor OCFS, however, is required to publish the results of these interactions publicly. Under legislation passed by the City Council, ACS must report certain demographic information each year, including the aggregate race, age, gender and home zip codes of young people admitted to Close to Home lockups. The agency is also required to publish quarterly data on incidents—such as fights, restraints and injuries—that happen across the system.

But there is no way for the public to know, for example, if an outsized number of fights or injuries take place at a specific residence. And there is no independent body empowered to make unannounced visits to lockups or to interview residents.

That’s particularly frustrating to some juvenile justice advocates because such a body was, in fact, included in ACS’s original proposal for the Close to Home program. In 2012, the administration proposed an independent oversight board, responsible for reviewing and reporting on conditions in Close to Home lockups.

The oversight board met only once before ACS’s current commissioner, Gladys Carrión, replaced it with an advisory board, which must commit to keeping its findings confidential.

The repurposed board will meet quarterly at facilities, and will include at least one parent of a justice-involved youth, as well as an adult who was in the justice system as a child, according to testimony by Carrión at a December City Council hearing.

Carrión testified that Close to Home providers are already subject to several layers of oversight. In addition to ACS and OCFS, she said, the system comes under the city’s Office of the Inspector General, which has oversight responsibility for all city agencies, as well as the city comptroller, the public advocate, the City Council, and district attorneys with the power to empanel grand juries.

“Given the robust oversight from the state and the structure for advocacy on behalf of youth at both the state and city levels, I began to examine the function and objectives of the board,” Carrión testified.

But some advocates for justice-involved youth argue that juvenile justice facilities—where kids are particularly vulnerable to abuse—need to be regularly inspected by people who are not beholden to the government agencies that run the system.

“OCFS sends ombudsmen,” says Alexandra Cox, an assistant professor who studies juvenile justice at SUNY New Paltz and a former member of the oversight board. “But a young person still sees that person as representing the agency. You need to have someone doing oversight who does not have an investment in the system.”

Both OCFS and ACS have histories of running juvenile justice facilities with problems. The state’s OCFS was responsible for the abuses uncovered by the DOJ. ACS, in its turn, has been under a corrective action plan (imposed by OCFS) since October 2012 due to high rates of  injuries and use of restraints and room confinements in city-run juvenile detention centers that hold young people awaiting court decisions.

 “It is precisely this history that underscores the need for external, independent monitoring of any justice facility in which children are confined,” says Gabrielle Horowitz-Prisco, director of the Juvenile Justice Project at the Correctional Association, an advocacy organization.

“An argument has been made that there are multiple city agencies empowered to provide Close to Home oversight,” Horowitz-Prisco says. “None of these agencies, however, are charged with routinely monitoring facilities, including conducting ongoing unannounced inspections and confidential interviews of youth and staff, and providing a real boots-on-the-ground presence. These various city agencies have all been in place for some time, yet a recent DOJ investigation and many years of media reporting before that uncovered longstanding systemic brutality against youth on Rikers Island, reinforcing the need for an independent body whose sole job is facility oversight.”

Nina Aledort of OCFS describes the comparison between Rikers and Close to Home as “apples to horses.”

“The beauty of Close to Home,” Aledort says, “is there's tremendous community involvement. Parents are in and out of there every week. Kids are going to school with a Department of Education teacher, they’re going into the community for medical care. It’s much more open and community-facing than Rikers, or than a state facility that's 100 miles away. It's important that folks recognize the difference.”

by Abigail Kramer