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Coronavirus Prompts Urgent Calls For Minors In Detention To Be Released

‘Continuing to maintain these youths in this hotbed of contagion poses an unconscionable and entirely preventable risk of harm,’ one lawsuit states.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Coronavirus Prompts Urgent Calls For Minors In Detention To Be Released

‘Continuing to maintain these youths in this hotbed of contagion poses an unconscionable and entirely preventable risk of harm,’ one lawsuit states.


Physicians, lawyers, and justice advocates are demanding that minors be released from juvenile and immigrant detention centers across the country to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in those facilities. Their demand comes as a number of coronavirus cases have been confirmed among children and staff members at facilities in New York.    

“New York is on the front lines—this isn’t happening big-time in Georgia yet or Kansas,” said Vincent Schiraldi, co-chairperson of Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice, and a former commissioner of New York City’s Department of Probation. “But they better figure out that a storm is coming to them, it’s just coming to them a little later. Shame on them if they wait until they get sick to do this.”

There are some 43,000 minors in varying degrees of state-run detention in the United States, and another 3,500 immigrant children in the care of the federal government, according to the latest statistics available. On Sunday, the Office of Refugee Resettlement said there were four confirmed cases of coronavirus among unaccompanied children in one New York shelter, and eight positives among staff and contractors across the country, six of those from three different shelters in New York. There were three more tests of minors pending as of Friday. 

Young people detained in the immigration system are awaiting placement with sponsors or hearings to stay in the country, while many in the criminal court system are simply detained before their trial takes place. “Especially when you have not yet been found guilty, jail should not be a death sentence,” said Rachel Gassert, policy director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.

Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice issued a statement on March 19, signed by 31 current and former corrections officials, that urges the release of youth who can be cared for at home, ending new admissions, keeping family visits by videoconference and maintaining educational activities inside. Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform posted an open letter on Thursday, urging the same.

“Many of these kids are within 90 to 100 days in release, many of them are not in for serious offenses,” said Schiraldi, co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab at the university’s School of Social Work. “We need to just get them out of there.”

The Legal Aid Society of New York filed a lawsuit last Wednesday against the commissioner of the city’s Administration for Children Services on behalf of at least 10 children, ages 13 to 17, at Crossroads, a secure facility in Brooklyn, and at another nonsecure (but locked) facility that houses minors in the city. Three staff members at Crossroads have tested positive for the virus.   

“Continuing to maintain these youths in this hotbed of contagion poses an unconscionable and entirely preventable risk of harm,” the suit, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, said. Continuing to do so is “deliberate indifference” that violates the 14th Amendment and their due process rights, the suit added.


Like adults, children in secure facilities often live in close quarters where they can’t always practice social distancing unless they are put in isolation. They can’t always wash their hands when they want and they can’t be with their families during a frightening time, as most centers have ended visitation. 

“Their support systems have been disrupted and that has a profound impact on children who are uniquely vulnerable,” said Laura Cohen, director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School in Newark, New Jersey.  

She added that “at least 50 percent” of minors who are detained have significant mental health needs. They are likely to have suffered past trauma—such as witnessing a family member dying—and are retraumatized by incarceration. Cohen said she has clients with asthma, plus a teenager with a pacemaker. She has filed for early release of vulnerable youth, a process that under the best situation could take up to nine months. 

Since the peak of youth incarceration in 1997, the U.S. youth detention population has been declining, down by more than 60,000. Still, many facilities for children remain, and some are more than 100 years old. 

“Health care inside is very spotty,” Schiraldi said. “In some areas it’s good, others it’s lacking. And whatever it is, it’s about to get worse.”

Youth justice advocates from across the country are demanding a reduction in youth populations and the ending of new admissions. Youth First Initiative, an organization seeking to end youth detention, sent letters from advocates in 30 states urging governors and administrators to stop new admissions and to remove vulnerable youth. 

Progeny, a youth advocacy group in Wichita, Kansas, noted that the flu spreads rapidly in youth facilities, which tend to have unreliable medical services. “Even something as little as a spider bite—you might question, am I going to be OK?” said Yusef Presley, 23, a youth leader for Progeny, who was first placed in detention at age 8.


Some organizations are urging caution, warning of “unintended consequences” by quickly releasing juveniles. 

“Are you hampering that child’s likelihood of success in returning to the community because there hasn’t been adequate planning?” said Melissa Sickmund, the director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, an organization that analyzes data for the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.  

Liz Ryan, the chief executive officer of the Youth First Initiative, acknowledged that policy makers need to redirect resources to supporting children, most often underprivileged, when they are released back into their communities. “You have to make sure their Medicaid coverage is immediately available,” she said. “You need to make sure that everyone has a safe place to go.”  

Some localities seem to be better prepared to do this than others. “We were able to get emergency hearings to look at releases and get some kids out quickly, safely, with other alternatives,” said Mark Mertens, the administrator for Milwaukee’s Division of Youth and Family Services.

Children in immigrant detention, however, who wait on average 55 days in detention before they can be released to guardians whom the federal government vets, are even more vulnerable. Last week, the National Center for Youth Law filed two emergency temporary restraining orders seeking to have children in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement released. 

U.S. District Court Judge Dolly M. Gee ruled on Saturday that while she had concerns about the conditions of children detained in immigrant facilities, she would postpone action until April 10. She gave the Office of Refugee Resettlement until then to show why children should not be released expeditiously. Meanwhile, the agency said it suspended admissions to facilities in the hardest-hit states: California, Washington, and New York. It said it was “limiting”  discharges in New York. The agency said that it checks temperatures twice daily and any child with symptoms is medically isolated. It said it is “committed to providing for the safety and well-being of unaccompanied alien children (UAC), as well as protecting the health and safety of the communities in which these children live.” 

That may not be enough, say advocates. 

“This is not immigration as usual,” said Wendy Young, the president of Kids in Need of Defense, a group advocating for the rights of immigrant children. “Decisions need to be made on behalf of children in custody in keeping with their best interests that balance their health needs with their need to be with family.”