Class Action Lawsuit Filed to Release Children from Louisiana’s Dangerous Juvenile Correctional Facilities Amidst Pandemic
Complaint Details Appalling Conditions, Grave Risk of Infection, and Dire Need for Action
NEW ORLEANS, LA (May 14, 2020) – Children’s advocates filed a lawsuit today against the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) for endangering the physical and mental health of youth in their care during the coronavirus pandemic.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of all children incarcerated in OJJ’s four secure care facilities, asks a federal court to order the immediate release of children – including those who are medically compromised - who can be safely returned to their communities and the implementation of new protocols to protect youth who remain in custody as well as facility staff.
“OJJ has demonstrated over and over that they are incapable of keeping kids safe during this pandemic – physically, mentally, and emotionally,” said Mercedes Montagnes, Executive Director of the Promise of Justice Initiative, which is representing the plaintiffs alongside Juvenile Law Center, the Law Office of John Adcock, and the international law firm O’Melveny & Myers.
“These children are especially vulnerable, living in communal, unsanitary dormitories that expose them to a very serious risk of contracting and spreading the deadly virus,” added Laura Aronsson, litigation counsel for O’Melveny.
Of the 29 children tested to date, 28 have been positive for COVID-19. There are an additional 41 confirmed cases among staff members. The actual numbers are likely much higher, given that OJJ ceased testing youth weeks ago and continues ill-advised practices, such as transporting children between facilities for non-medical reasons and failing to deep clean areas where infected youth have been housed. At least one sick child requested to be tested for COVID-19 and was denied.
Unfortunately, even the steps that OJJ has taken to slow the spread of the virus are in many instances counterproductive, more likely to aggravate than mitigate children’s fragile emotional and psychological well-being under these circumstances. Children are locked in their dorms for 23 hours a day with little to no education or programming. Few youth have had any meaningful contact with their families, even though family connection is one of the key factors in preventing re-offending.
“Exposing children to grave medical risk while simultaneously shutting down programming is truly the worst of both worlds,” said Marsha Levick, Chief Legal Officer of Juvenile Law Center. “Stripping children of their liberty in the name of treatment but instead locking them in highly confined spaces flips public health strategy on its head and ignores the constitutional rights of children in state custody. The rules of a pandemic upend prevailing norms; as many children as can be safely returned to their communities must be, as quickly as possible.”
According to the lawsuit, OJJ has not provided parents with adequate information on what the agency is doing to protect or treat their children. In fact, at least one mother was not informed when her son tested positive for COVID-19, despite numerous attempts to contact the facility.
“Families are being left in the dark,” said Gina Womack, Executive Director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. “The people in charge of caring for their children won’t tell parents what’s going on and many have not been able to speak to their kids in weeks. They are rightfully sick with worry and want their kids home.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of children in OJJ’s secure care facilities, who can range in age from 10 to 21. Parents are named as plaintiffs if their child is under 18.
O’Melveny & Myers LLP is an international law firm with a vibrant and award-winning pro bono practice. With so many people in distress as a result of COVID-19, access to legal advice is critical. O’Melveny is committed to helping those most vulnerable. Visit us at omm.com.
The Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI) is a New Orleans based nonprofit that works to create positive change for people in the criminal justice system at the intersection of direct services, impact litigation, and community engagement. We believe in a world where our justice system values each person; a world where the system supports rehabilitation, and a world where we approach justice with a lens of healing and restoration for those who are harmed. This world will be safer and more secure for all people. For more information, follow our work at www.promiseofjustice.org.
Juvenile Law Center advocates for rights, dignity, equity and opportunity for youth in the foster care and justice systems. Founded in 1975, Juvenile Law Center is the first non-profit, public interest law firm for children in the country. We fight for youth through litigation, appellate advocacy and submission of amicus (friend-of-the-court) briefs, policy reform, public education, training, consulting, and strategic communications. For more information about Juvenile Law Center’s work, visit www.JLC.org.
Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) is a statewide multigenerational grassroots organization that focuses on ensuring every child has an opportunity to grow and thrive especially those who are deprived equitable opportunities and pushed into the school to prison pipeline. Learn more at fflic.org.