Court Prohibits New York State from Routinely Shackling all Delinquent Youth Brought to Courthouses

The State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) violates the law when it routinely shackles children whom the agency transports to court, a New York State Supreme Court justice ruled Tuesday. “The court’s recognition that O.C.F.S. cannot treat children this way is part and parcel of a culture of abusive practices that is not rehabilitative and does not recognize that these are children who are in the care of the state,” said Nancy Rosenbloom, Director of the Juvenile Rights Law Reform Unit and the lead lawyer on the case. “We had evidence of kids not being able to drink their milk on the way to court because of the chains,” Nancy Rosenbloom told The New York Times. The law firm of Cooley Godward Kronish LLP serves pro bono as co-counsel on the case.

The Legal Aid Society represents John F., a boy who was placed in the custody of OCFS for rehabilitation after a juvenile delinquency finding. John F. sued OCFS on behalf of all children who are brought to New York City’s courthouses while in OCFS custody in “limited secure” and “nonsecure” facilities. The class action case, brought in New York State Supreme Court, challenged OCFS’s policy and practice of routinely shackling every such child whom the agency transports to court, restraining boys and girls with handcuffs, footcuffs, and waist belts that attach the children’s cuffed hands to their waists. Although OCFS staff accompany each child, the agency keeps children fully shackled the entire time they spend in the public corridors, public waiting areas, and other areas of courthouses – often for a full day. The agency makes no individualized assessment of controllability and dangerousness; rather, every child is shackled.

Granting plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, Justice Milton A. Tingling, Jr., found that this humiliating and unnecessary practice violates the State’s own regulation, which prohibits the use of mechanical restraints unless “a child is uncontrollable and constitutes a serious and evident danger to himself and others.” The court declared that OCFS’s policy allowing “shackling of all youth – regardless of behavioral assessment or without apparent need” is “an attempt to create law where [OCFS] lacks authority to do so” and “completely contradict[s] the language” of the governing regulation. The Court noted that OCFS did not contest or contradict plaintiffs’ contention that the agency shackles all youth without individualized assessments.

On behalf of the entire class of children, the Court enjoined OCFS “from restraining, with handcuffs and/or footcuffs, children placed in their non-secure or limited secure custody pursuant to Article 3 of the Family Court Act, during the time the children spend in New York City Court buildings” unless the agency makes a determination that an individual child poses “a serious and evident danger to himself and others at the time defendant seeks to restrain the child.”

In addition to Ms. Rosenbloom, counsel on the case include Adam Hassuk, formerly of the JRP law reform unit, and from Cooley Godward William Schwartz, Rachel Kane and Karen Won.