Around the country foster group homes, juvenile detention centers, and prisons where youth are held are seeing an uptick in coronavirus outbreaks. Riots are breaking out with kids running away from facilities because they are afraid of being infected – in one instance they were tear-gassed. These children are being placed in 20-hour-plus solitary confinement for their own “protection”, but in unventilated cells that often have not been cleaned properly. Children can have no family visitors, and their educations are on hold. Putting kids in lockdown is not keeping them safe or controlling the spread of infection. Staff, probation officers, and others are testing positive and bringing the coronavirus into confined spaces. Meanwhile, terrified children are hiding any symptoms they may have to try and avoid isolation. Those who are put in solitary suffer the emotional and psychological consequences.
Last week, 25 out of 38 girls tested positive for COVID-19 in Michigan’s largest child welfare organization. New York, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Missouri have also reported a rise in cases in group homes. This week, the Sentencing Project, which has been closely monitoring juvenile facilities across the U.S., reported at least 506 staff in 30 states, and at a minimum 441 youth across 24 states, DC and Puerto Rico tested positive.
One tragic COVID-19 case in Michigan is gaining national attention: Cornelius Frederick, a 16-year old boy who was restrained after throwing a sandwich. After he passed out he was transported to the local hospital in Kalamazoo where he tested positive for the virus before dying. Nearly 40 other children and 9 staff members at the facility have tested positive since Cornelius’ death. USA Today reported on his case and spoke with our executive director, Sandy Santana:
“Group homes are often not the answer in normal circumstances. Many of these facilities are rife with physical and sexual abuse, and now they’re breeding grounds for this disease, as well. And when you do try to separate kids for social distancing, it can feel to the kid like isolation and abandonment, which compounds their trauma.”
Frederick’s death has sparked an uproar among the online community and advocates with a call to shut down the Lakeside Academy and other for-profit facilities, with calls for #JusticeForCornelius. His death is a heartbreaking reminder of the dangerous conditions children have been living in for decades in places like Lakeside Academy. Cornelius was one of the thousands of young people in need of mental health support who struggle each day in America’s broken foster group homes.
COVID-19 has put their suffering into stark relief. And it has led to a broad bipartisan movement to release youth held in detention. A survey conducted in April by the Justice Collaborative institute showed a strong bipartisan majority of voting Americans support for stepping up to protect kids. 60 percent support releasing juveniles whose sentences end within the next six months, including 54 percent of Republicans. 58 percent of voters prefer early release to solitary confinement conditions imposed on juveniles during a pandemic, including 50 percent of Republicans.
Cornelius was a healthy, sweet rambunctious boy who deserved a better fate.
We fight to protect children like Cornelius from abuse and neglect — and now is not the time to pause. We must demand that the health and safety of our children are prioritized. We will continue to fight to reduce the population of detained youth and return them to their families. It is the best solution we have for keeping them healthy and giving them the chance to heal from the mental anguish they have suffered.