Originally created 06/30/03

Let's get behind YDC



For some time now, the Augusta Youth Development Campus has been in a death spiral. Whether it can pull out of it, even with radical maneuvers, remains to be seen.

For most of that nose dive, says Atlanta child advocate Rick McDevitt, no one seemed to care. But now with workers being displaced due to the facility being privatized - in lieu of simply being closed - a lot of people seem to care.

A lot more people may care after a public meeting in Augusta this morning in which state Juvenile Justice Commissioner Orlando Martinez is expected to reveal contents of a Georgia Bureau of Investigation report chronicling problems and even outrages at YDC. Martinez is convinced the GBI report, along with other evidence and observations logged by his agency, will make a solid case for privatizing YDC under Unique Solutions, a private company already handling mental health duties at the facility.

Of course, it's hard to argue that that will be a panacea, when allegations of child abuse have been raised in the case of one YDC client under Unique Solutions' care.

YDC workers, only some of whom will survive the transition to the privately run facility, aren't going quietly. They object to the plan, they claim the facility has been poorly administered and they rue the loss of good government jobs in Augusta.

Some YDC workers have been "resistant to change," according to Department of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Jaci Vickers. Allegations flew last week that some workers were faking illness in protest - which would be unconscionable, given that youth and staff safety is directly linked to proper staffing levels at such a facility.

And, while there are plenty of professionals among the staff at YDC, Martinez points to a longstanding and immovable culture at the facility - a culture that clings to the old ways, treats juvenile offenders like adult criminals and, essentially, has led to a creeping mutiny that throws off any new order imposed from above.

The Department of Juvenile Justice is in no way blameless. But after months and months of allegations and confirmations of abuse, sexual abuse, suicides and suicide attempts, and what Martinez called "extortion" of youth by certain staff (details to come today), the department is throwing in the towel.

Failure is not an option. Continued problems at YDC will prevent the state from satisfying terms of a settlement stemming from a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit over Georgia's handling of juvenile offenders - which, when the suit was filed in 1998, was downright abysmal.

Martinez seems determined to change that - and, according to his department, there are some ensconced state workers at YDC who are determined to prevent him from doing it.

No one likes the idea of losing any jobs, but the only alternative to privatization at this point seems to be closing - in which case every job is lost.

Youth behind bars may not garner a lot of public empathy or sympathy. But they have rights, too. And it's up to us to preserve those rights while they're in state custody.

Moreover, most of those youth will be on the streets again someday - so it's in our own best interest to do more than warehouse them.

McDevitt is right: This can't be primarily about jobs and votes and government largesse. The mission to the youth and to public safety comes first, no matter whether a public or private entity is ostensibly in charge.

Oh, and when YDC is under private management, our commitment to the facility and its clients had better increase. Hoping the privatized YDC fails, in order to simply get it back in government hands, is hoping for more ruined young lives.