With controversy over immigrant children spilling over into Virginia, state officials launched an investigation into treatment of immigrant youths at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Verona.
Their recent report found that no laws were broken.
It’s important to recognize this finding, since the SVJC was subjected to a heavy burden of suspicion after allegations of mistreatment were publicized.
The seeds of this controversy go back to late last year, when a civil rights organization filed suit on behalf of three teens, alleging constitutional violations and mistreatment ranging from inadequate physical and mental health care, to having bags placed over their heads, to shackling and handcuffing, all the way up to violence.
State officials responded in early 2018 by visiting the detention center and reviewing its certification, finding no problems.
The lawsuit didn’t come to public attention until a news story broke in June, some months after a request for an injunction against the detention center had been filed.
That prompted a more extensive state inquiry. But by this time, the three teens no longer were housed at the SVJC, having been either transferred or deported.
Instead, investigators spoke with 22 other residents.
They found that although the staff did use restraint techniques to control unruly residents, those actions fell within state law and did not rise to the level of mistreatment.
For instance, the law allows “out-of-control” residents to be strapped to chairs. It allows mesh bags to be placed over their heads as “spit guards.”
But a lawyer at the Washington Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs representing the Latino teens said that the lawsuit will continue. The state report doesn't disprove the allegations of abuse, Hannah M. Lieberman said.
Meanwhile, the state admits that conditions could be better at the SVJC, and it made several recommendations for improvement.
Not surprisingly, one of the most important recommendations is to have more bilingual staff on hand.
It’s been nearly 10 years now that the center has been accepting juvenile immigrant detainees. Since many of those detainees could have been expected to come from Latin American countries, it follows that the center should have prepared for bilingual residents by acquiring a bilingual staff.
The state reports that failure to communicate means, for one thing, that Latino residents don’t understand their rights.
We can imagine a teen not understanding why he was being restrained, not understanding what behavior was expected of him, if no one is available to speak his language.
Residents also might not be able to communicate their needs. The report notes that the SVJC needs to do a better job in screening residents for mental health problems. Clarity of communication is essential in such delicate territory.
In fact, the report says that the SVJC operates more like a correctional center than a detention center — even though the teens have not been convicted of any crimes. It should improve its programming for residents, the report says — including programming that is culturally appropriate.
The state inquiry turns out to have been beneficial in several ways. It lifts a shadow of suspicion from the center, but also pinpoints areas that need improvement.
The SVJC can show its good faith by implementing those improvements promptly.