Problems at Pittsburgh’s Shuman Juvenile Detention Center reflect larger issues in the integrity of the juvenile-justice system. | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Problems at Pittsburgh’s Shuman Juvenile Detention Center reflect larger issues in the integrity of the juvenile-justice system.

“... This facility and every facility has a responsibility to ensure that young people in their care are safe and not subject to violence.”

click to enlarge Problems at Pittsburgh’s Shuman Juvenile Detention Center reflect larger issues in the integrity of the juvenile-justice system.
CP photo illustration

One morning in October 2016, longtime youth-care worker DeWayne Collins was on duty at the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center in Pittsburgh. That day, Collins was watching over one resident when a supervisor dropped a second resident at his unit. That resident was later found unresponsive, with a cord wrapped around her neck. 

According to a state violation report, Collins “neglected the supervision” of the resident for 30 minutes, between 10:28 a.m. and 10:58 a.m. She was found inside the unit office, with a cord wrapped around her neck in an apparent suicide attempt. The report states that she was slouched in the chair, shaking — awake but unresponsive — with her eyes rolled back in her head. Shuman staff and administrators didn’t call 911 until 18 minutes after the girl was discovered. 

Collins was fired after the incident. In June, he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he had assumed that another employee would be coming back to watch the girl, since he had already been told to watch another resident exclusively. He said he was distracted for 10 minutes by a book he was reading on conspiracy theories. 

Due to this incident and others like it, this past summer the Shuman Center was issued its third consecutive provisional license by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. The provisional license was issued after DHS inspected the facility and found a number of violations. A fourth provisional license could cause revocation of the facility’s license. 

City Paper talked to a former employee who worked at Shuman for more than 20 years. That person says meaningful reform at the facility has yet to be seen. The former employee says that many of the problems that were revealed years ago are issues that the facility still struggles with today. Understaffing, mismanagement, and inappropriate use of force on residents are just some of the problems that this employee, who stopped working at Shuman this year, says continue to plague Shuman. 

“There’s stuff that happens with those kids and they try to cover it up and they get caught once in a while,” says the former employee, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. 

Shuman has seen a string of problematic incidents over the past decade. Experts say Shuman isn’t alone in needing reform — the entire juvenile-justice system is in need of change. But if local leaders and administrators don’t soon find a way to reform the center to the state’s liking, that fourth provisional license could be on the way, and the Shuman Center could be on the way out. 

“It’s only a matter of time until somebody gets really hurt up there,” says the former Shuman employee. 

On average, 3,500 youths are admitted to Shuman Center, located in Lincoln-Lemington, each year. Repeat admissions account for approximately 40 percent of that total, and the average length of stay is about 15 days.

The center houses young people who are awaiting a trial that will decide whether they’ll be placed on probation or in a detention facility. Tiffany Sizemore-Thompson, an assistant professor at Duquesne University’s law school, says the facility’s purpose is similar to the county jail, but for people ages 21 and under. 

“You’re either at Shuman pending the outcome of your case or you may be at Shuman if something has gone wrong either on your probation or at your placement and you get sent back to Shuman as a holding space until the next thing happens,” Sizemore-Thompson says. 

Shuman had its license taken away in December 2015 and has been operating under provisional licenses ever since. A collection of nearly two dozen inspection/violation reports issued over the past decade illustrates a history of problems involving employee misconduct and policy and procedure violations at the administrative level. 

In 2013, according to one of the state’s violation reports, Taymar Young, who was 16 years old at the time, was pushed to the ground by a guard. The biggest problem, according to the state, was the fact that it took the administration at Shuman four days to report the incident. 

click to enlarge Problems at Pittsburgh’s Shuman Juvenile Detention Center reflect larger issues in the integrity of the juvenile-justice system.
Image courtesy of Google Maps

According to a state violation report from April 2016, a staff member threw a resident against a bed so forcefully that the metal frame sliced into the resident’s skin, nearly severing the child’s ear. The resident was taken to the hospital and received 30 stitches. 

And these are just a few of the violent incidents reported over the past five years. Juvenile-justice lawyer Jessica Feierman says a single instance of violence in a juvenile-detention center is too many. 

“It’s certainly true that one of the problems with secure facilities and especially larger secure facilities is that the research consistently shows that despite everyone’s best intentions, it’s not uncommon to have violence,” says Feierman, associate director of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center.  “The bottom line is, regardless of what’s happening anywhere else, this facility and every facility has a responsibility to ensure that young people in their care are safe and not subject to violence.”

Since the state issued a third provisional license to Shuman this summer, Shuman Deputy Director of Operations Richard Gordon says the center has been working to address problems.

“We continue to train staff in more appropriate ways to interact with violent and aggressive youth,” Gordon said in a written response to CP. “We collaborated with a consultant to create cultural and organizational change. We have restructured our administrative team. We have improved upon our own quality-control process. And we continue to work in close collaboration and cooperation with the state on this issue.”

CP asked Gordon about Shuman’s training policies and whether staff are retrained if they violate policy by using an inappropriate amount of force. While CP could not validate the claim, Gordon wrote that Shuman “offers the most training of any facility in the state.”

“At the beginning of each year, we schedule each staff [member] for 96 hours of training in many areas as it relates to the treatment of youth,” Gordon wrote. “The state mandates that each staff person that has direct and significant contact with youth have a minimum of 40 hours of training yearly.”  

In addition to violations involving violent altercations between residents and staff, inspections at Shuman have shown that administrators there have failed to follow regulations.  According to a report from January 2017, DHS found Shuman in violation of a regulation that states that during “awake hours” there must be one child-care worker present for every six children. At times Shuman has operated with a ratio of one worker for 10 children. 

In his response to the violation report, Gordon wrote that in 2016, Shuman hired 14 child-care workers and supervisors, but also lost 13 employees in those positions. Gordon wrote that when employees call off work or take vacation, they are often unable to properly staff the building. 

“When staff members are not at work for a variety of reasons, mandated overtime is necessary to ensure regulated ratios are met,” Gordon told CP.

The former Shuman employee who left the facility earlier this year says that trying to address understaffing with mandatory overtime has had negative consequences. 

“You’re not getting forced to do an hour or two, you’re getting forced to do double shifts,” the employee says. “Then on top of working a 16-hour shift, they don’t even have enough people to come back and give you a break.” 

The former employee also alleges that staff working the night shift aren’t fulfilling their duty to perform regular overnight bed checks, an allegation that has been listed in violation reports by the state in years past. Back in 2009, eight workers at Shuman were discovered to be lying about how often they performed bed checks, and some were even found sleeping on the job.  

Feierman says strong leadership is necessary to fix problems at juvenile-detention facilities. 

“To respond effectively to young people in facilities, you need a combination of thoughtful leadership and adequate resources and staffing,” says Feierman. 

But over the past six years, Shuman has had four different directors attempt to lead the facility down a more successful path. The short stints under each director’s leadership have left Shuman without a consistent vision. 

“There have been directors who have been willing to collaborate with stakeholders across the system to try to make Shuman safe,” Sizemore-Thompson says. “I’ve heard a variety of different ideas from different directors but nothing seems to ever really get off the ground.”

In addition to poor leadership, some have claimed that the state’s lack of financial support for Shuman is effectively setting the center up for failure and leaving it unable to adequately staff the facility and handle the many kids with mental illnesses who are under its care. The center has seen its budget decrease over the past five years. In 2012, it was budgeted for $7,057,969 for personnel. By 2017, that figure had fallen to $5,812,424. 

“We believe that Allegheny County and the state have supported Shuman Center in many ways, including financially,” wrote Gordon. “Obviously, everyone would love to have more money in their wallet, but we do not have any unmet needs and have the appropriate resources for our operations.”

Others say the center isn’t equipped to handle the psychological needs of the children it serves. The former employee who spoke to CP says that as a detention center, Shuman’s focus isn’t therapeutic. Children can be in Shuman for a few days or for more than a month, and while they’re there they don’t have access to mental-health care unless they’re in a “crisis.” In a report from 2016, when the facility contained 49 children, 25 of them were recorded as having a mental illness. In 2015, when there were 40 children in Shuman, eight had mental illnesses. 

Sizemore-Thompson operates two clinics that provide legal representation for juveniles in Pittsburgh. Prior to that, she was the head of the juvenile division of the Allegheny County Public Defender’s Office. She’s worked with many kids who have spent time in Shuman, and has been inside the facility a number of times to meet with her clients.

“My kids who I have had there who have serious mental-health issues tend to not have access to their medication, or Shuman will change their medication while they’re there. It is not a place where I would want a client with severe mental-health issues because it doesn’t seem to be able to handle those types of kids at all,” says Sizemore-Thompson. 

Gordon wrote that residents at Shuman have access to medical and mental-health professionals around the clock, but that federal and state guidelines for insurance and reimbursement of services determine what services can and cannot be provided to people in detention centers.  

“Our average length of stay is short (12 days) which also creates difficulty in creating a stable environment for change,” Gordon wrote. “We are not a treatment facility, but we aspire to provide those services the best we can with the resources we are allotted.”    

Further violations at Shuman could get the facility shut down for good. And Feierman worries that if Shuman does close, the kids detained there could be sent to facilities in neighboring counties. She says that isn’t a desirable outcome. “It’s traumatic to be pulled out of your home and family and put in an institution, and it’s all the more traumatic if you’re placed far from home,” she says. 

The kids could also be sent to private facilities, or Shuman itself could be privatized. But Feierman doesn’t like this option either, as she says that in for-profit facilities the goal of making a profit often outweighs the goal of adequately caring for young people. 

Despite admitted problems at the facility, experts say Shuman is just one part of a much larger, often dysfunctional system. It wouldn’t be fair, in other words, to pretend that Shuman is a flawed part of a perfect system. On the whole, experts agree that the U.S. juvenile-justice system is flawed. Feierman says the real problem with juvenile detention centers is that we overuse them.

According to the Allegheny County Office of Juvenile Probation, in 2015, 73 percent of referrals to juvenile probation were for nonviolent crimes. Those youths’ charges involved things like drugs, theft, or failing to pay court fees. 

“That’s a national phenomenon,” says Michael Yonas, senior program officer at the Pittsburgh Foundation. The United States has the highest rate of youth confinement worldwide. It’s nearly four times higher than that of second-place South Africa. 

Yonas lead a qualitative study on juvenile justice in Allegheny County for the Pittsburgh Foundation’s “100 Percent Pittsburgh” initiative, which recognizes that some Pittsburghers haven’t been able to participate in the city’s economic growth, and is dedicated to finding ways to bridge that divide. 

One of the project’s focus populations is youth ages 12 to 24, so the foundation took interest in these young people’s involvement in the juvenile-justice system. Fifty-three kids were interviewed in focus groups for the study, many of whom had spent time in Shuman. Yonas noted many common themes in the kids’ experiences. He said that these kids are looking for adults who care about them. Some of the children involved in Yonas’ survey said they found these supportive mentors within the juvenile system.

Shuman residents by age

And while a lot of the news at Shuman has been negative, one girl shared a positive story. 

“They highlighted people from throughout the system — including one young woman sharing [that] a Shuman guard … kept saying to her ‘you’re special, you’re a queen, you’re great,’” Yonas says. The girl said the tenth time she heard these affirmations, she started to think that maybe this guard was right about her. 

“And this young woman from the 412 Zone” — a program for kids in the foster-care system or experiencing homelessness — “now wants to be a Shuman officer to help other young women,” says Yonas.

This isn’t the only positive story to come out of Shuman. Sizemore-Thompson also emphasizes that in her many visits to the facility, she’s met Shuman employees who are there because they really care about the kids. 

“There are some of the youth-care workers that genuinely are really nice, caring people and people that I’m glad are there,” says Sizemore-Thompson. 

Ultimately, experts say improving the country’s juvenile-detention centers means changing the juvenile-justice system as a whole. Another theme that came up again and again in the Pittsburgh Foundation’s study is that many of the kids felt they had been placed in the system so quickly for a petty offense, and once they were in, they couldn’t seem to get out.

“A lot of things happened that got me there,” said a 17-year-old female interviewed in the study, “and nobody ever went back and asked me what happened and how I had got there.”

The kids shared that they felt forever marked as a “bad kid” after one mistake — which was often an action that resulted from something in their life that was out of their control. They cited things like abuse, absent parents, and poverty as factors that contributed to the events leading to their referral to the system.

Says Yonas, “We should recognize that many of the actions that they’re taking part in that land them in a place like Shuman or the juvenile-justice system is a symptom of something deeper.”