Children Are Subjected to Excessive Force and Deprived of Mental Health Services In OCFS Residential Centers, Federal Lawsuit Charges

A federal civil rights class action lawsuit was filed yesterday against the New York State Office of Children and Family Services charging that children confined in OCFS residential centers are subjected to unconstitutional and excessive force by members of the staff and are deprived of legally-required mental health services.

Children who are sentenced in New York State Family Court proceedings after a finding of juvenile delinquency are faced with serious and dangerous situations when confined to the OCFS facilities, the lawsuit charges. There are approximately 500 children within these facilities at any one time and 80 % of them have mental health needs. The lawsuit, filed by The Legal Aid Society and the law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeks declaratory and injunctive relief on the grounds that these children have been denied their constitutional rights under the 14th amendment and other provisions of law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Despite well-documented findings in a report by the United States Department of Justice in August and a recent report of the New York State Governor David Paterson's expert task force confirming system-wide problems, children continue to be violently and unlawfully restrained, the use of excessive force resulting in serious injuries such as broken bones and shattered teeth is routine, and there is a systemic lack of mental health services in these facilities.

Gladys Carrion, Commissioner of OCFS, is named as a defendant along with others employed by OCFS.

Tamara Steckler, Attorney-in-Charge of the Juvenile Rights Practice at The Legal Aid Society, said the Society commenced the litigation to address the urgent need to protect children from harm in these facilities. She said that while she supported the State Office of Children and Family Services efforts to make changes in these facilities over the past 18 months, the lawsuit was necessary because children in the OCFS facilities are still being hurt by the excessive use of force and the lack of adequate, quality mental health services.

 "Once sent to an OCFS facility these children find themselves far from their families, behind barbed wire. They need a helping hand to meet their mental health and other service needs but instead they get the back of the hand when they are subjected to the excessive use of force or are denied mental health services.

Attorneys from The Legal Aid Society who are representing the children include Steven Banks, Attorney- in-Chief  of The Legal Aid Society; Nancy Rosenbloom, Director of the Juvenile Rights Practice Law Reform Unit and Christine Bella, a staff attorney in the unit. J. Peter Coll and Rene Kathawala of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, are serving as pro bono counsel.

Read complaint and the full New York Times article.