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Messenger: Outbreak of COVID-19 infects juveniles, staff at St. Louis County detention facility
Tony's Take

Messenger: Outbreak of COVID-19 infects juveniles, staff at St. Louis County detention facility

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An outbreak of COVID-19 has hit the Juvenile Detention Center in St. Louis County.

Six of 19 juveniles held there on various charges have been infected. Two staff members who work in the facility also have the potentially deadly virus. Most of the juveniles held at the facility are African American.

News of the outbreak was shared with at least some St. Louis County court staff in a letter emailed Thursday morning from Circuit Judge Michael Burton, the presiding judge of the county.

“They are asymptomatic, and will be monitored by Corrections Medicine to address any medical needs that arise,” Burton wrote about the juveniles. “All positive residents will be housed in the same pod, providing individual bathrooms in each room. All group activities have been eliminated. The full Detention facility will remain on medical lockdown and employees will continue to receive expanded symptom screening.”

In effect, says Sarah Johnson, director of juvenile defense and policy for the state public defender’s office, that action puts the juveniles in solitary confinement.

“We have to remember that first and foremost these are children who are simply waiting for their day in court,” Johnson said. “The stress and the toll on the child’s mental health are exacerbated by being in what essentially amounts to solitary confinement.”

Burton’s letter came out amid pressure from detention center employees, who knew of at least one positive test earlier this month and unsuccessfully sought more information from county officials. Two county court employees who are knowledgeable of the situation said that employees connected to the detention center had been asking supervisors for more information for several days, to no avail. The employees asked for anonymity because they fear retaliation for speaking out.

“We could have prevented all of these positive tests,” said one employee. “When we knew we had the one, we could have stopped it. The public needs to know we have an outbreak at our center.”

The county’s juvenile detention center is on the first floor of the St. Louis County Courts building in Clayton. Employees of the detention center walk into the courthouse using the same entrance as other courthouse building employees, and then enter the detention center next to the first floor information desk. The young people who are held there are part of a system in which most of the records and proceedings are kept confidential.

For weeks, officials have worked to reduce the population of the detention center to decrease risk of the spread of COVID-19. Around the country, various jails and prisons have been hotbeds for the spread of the coronavirus, and advocates have been pushing for release of as many people held behind bars as possible.

But as positive tests were recorded in April at the Juvenile Detention Center, there was little effort to inform other detention center employees and county courthouse employees, say the employees who spoke to me.

“People were being exposed and not ever told,” one of the employees said. “It’s been slowly happening for weeks.”

At various times in the past month, some detention center employees have refused to come to work because of the lack of information, and also a dearth of protective gear for employees, they say.

Earlier this month, county jail employees complained to the Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Kohler that jail officials had been similarly slow to inform jail employees about positive tests there, among both inmates and correctional staff, making it more difficult to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Christine Bertelson, director of strategic communication for the circuit court, said that officials worked as quickly as they could to share information about the positive tests at the juvenile center. Last week, Burton sent a separate email informing court employees of the first positive test in the juvenile facility.

“It is understandable that people are frustrated,” Bertelson said. “They want as much information as they can get as soon as they can get it.”

The employees who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said various officials who deal with the juvenile justice system had been trying to get county supervisors to be more public about the COVID-19 tests, going back to the first positive one.

Johnson, the public defender, said she believes the juveniles should be getting medical treatment outside the detention facility. “We are urging the court to release the children in the detention center so they can shelter in place with their families and receive medical treatment in the community.”

At least one employee who works with those juveniles agrees.

“I have a legal and moral duty to protect these children,” said one of the employees. “These kids should be home being treated, or in a hospital setting where somebody can monitor their care. This is a disease that is killing people. We are not prepared to handle it.”

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