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As COVID-19 spreads, advocates ask Pa. Supreme Court to release vulnerable youth from detention centers, jails

Juvenile Law Center and other children's advocacy organizations say releasing youth is the best way to protect them from COVID-19 and to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Pamela Campbell's 16-year-old son is at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County, and she is worried about his safety as the coronavirus spreads in the region.
Pamela Campbell's 16-year-old son is at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County, and she is worried about his safety as the coronavirus spreads in the region.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

For two weeks, the 16-year-old was locked in a cell at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County, in what the staff called “quarantine" but looked and felt like solitary confinement.

Caleb Campbell of Upper Chichester was allowed out of the cell — where he was being held awaiting trial — just one hour each day. He could shower and make a phone call. That’s how he told his mother that he had been exposed to a staff member who may have COVID-19.

There was not enough soap or sanitizer at the jail to keep safe, Caleb said, and there were no masks for him to use as he cleaned the juvenile unit for $10 a shift.

“And then I told my son to put a sock over the phone,” Pamela Campbell said, “because who knows how many people had used it that day?”

Legal organizations filed an emergency petition to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Wednesday to release about 2,000 juveniles held in county detention centers, residential programs, and adult jails, as the coronavirus escalates from a threat to a grim reality for those packed into close quarters.

The King’s Bench petition is a powerful though rarely exercised legal tool that allows petitioners to skip lower courts and directly approach the Supreme Court. The attorneys bringing it forward say extraordinary circumstances have left them no choice.

Using existing means, Philadelphia’s public defenders have secured the release of only half of the 41 children considered medically fragile at the city’s Juvenile Justice Services Center, where an employee tested positive Tuesday for the coronavirus. Leola Hardy, juvenile chief of the Philadelphia Defender Association, said she had filed 80 emergency motions.

“We feel like our backs are up against the wall," Hardy said, “and that we’re running out of time.”

» READ MORE: Kids under threat: Coronavirus hitting juvenile detention centers

The petition was brought by Juvenile Law Center — a national, nonprofit children’s organization based in Philadelphia — alongside the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project and DLA Piper, a global law firm based in London.

The petition seeks the release of all youth being detained in the juvenile-justice system, as well as youth like Caleb Campbell arrested for crimes in the adult system, but awaiting trial.

The document prioritizes the immediate release of medically-vulnerable children, those with asthma, diabetes, blood disorders, compromised immune systems, developmental delays, a pregnancy, or a heart, lung or kidney disease. But the attorneys make the case that all youth — with the exception of those who pose a clear risk of harm to others — should be given virtual hearings and released from these detention centers, jails and residential programs.

“There’s simply not the space to be socially distanced when you’re sleeping in the same room with 20 to 30 other people and your beds are three to four feet apart and nailed to the floor,” said Lauren Fine, co-director of YSRP. “The facilities aren’t set up to be able to comply.”

Jessica Feierman, senior managing director for Juvenile Law Center, said many of the youth they’ve spoken with don’t have adequate access to sinks or soap.

» READ MORE: After Glen Mills, Gov. Tom Wolf proposes extra $5 million to regulate juvenile programs

“There may be three cells, one of which has a sink, and the freedom of movement in many facilities is limited,” Feierman said. “So if you sneeze, you can’t necessarily immediately walk over to the sink and wash your hands with soap and water.”

Twelve inmates in Philadelphia jails have tested positive for the coronavirus, city officials said Wednesday. At New York City’s Rikers Island, hundreds of inmates and staff members have tested positive at a rate more than seven times the general population.

Although children are widely considered less vulnerable than older adults to serious complications from COVID-19, they can still contract it to devastating effect. Last week, a California mayor announced that a 17-year-old who tested positive for coronavirus and later died had been denied treatment at an urgent care center because he lacked health insurance. In Philadelphia, there have been at least 18 confirmed cases of coronavirus among people under 20.

Feierman said she was also concerned that social distancing attempts by these facilities would lead to teenagers being held in solitary confinement, as Caleb was. “We know solitary confinement is devastating and can lead to long-term harms for young people,” she said.

» READ MORE: To protect teens’ mental health, keep them moving

The state Supreme Court could demand a response to the petition from various Pennsylvania agencies, including the attorney general’s office, within days.

“In the realm of litigation, that’s kind of lightning speed,” said Fine.

Feierman said that Juvenile Law Center — which is currently suing state leaders over abuse at the Glen Mills Schools — has not filed a King’s Bench petition since 2008, when the “Kids for Cash” scandal exposed that judges were receiving kickbacks for sending juveniles to certain placements.

Asked if the state attorney general would support the new petition, Jacklin Rhoads, a spokesperson for Attorney General Josh Shapiro, said the office’s top priority is “public health and public safety" and “is making a careful determination in each case to meet that goal.”

Cynthia Figueroa, deputy mayor for the Philadelphia Office of Children and Families, did not answer directly when asked if she would support the release, but said her administration has always worked to reduce the number of children and teenagers in congregate care.

“And so we continue to look at opportunities to review and relist cases,” Figueroa said.

The juveniles at the county detention centers and in adult jails have been arrested, but not convicted or adjudicated delinquent of their crimes. Caleb, for example, was arrested in May after allegedly participating in an armed robbery, but has not been tried and is seeking to be recertified back into the juvenile system.

» READ MORE: How Pennsylvania failed to protect boys from abuse at Glen Mills and other state-licensed juvenile programs.

The majority of youth who would be released have been accused of lesser crimes, including misdemeanors. At least one-quarter of the youth in juvenile programs were committed for technical violations, like missing curfew or skipping school. Many of them don’t know when they will see a judge, and the expected discharge date for some of them has come and gone, Hardy said.

She said the mental and emotional toll has been especially difficult on these teenagers. “One child just broke my heart,” said Hardy, recalling a 16-year-old girl in a program more than two hours from Philadelphia. "She told her attorney, ‘I just want to hug my mom.’ And as a mom myself it’s heartbreaking, because I’m sure her mom just wants to hug her too.

“We can’t forget the humanity of that, that these are kids."

Inquirer staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.