Grave deficiencies in the protection of the youth in its care.

Training of staff is gravely inadequate.

Physical environment is extremely inadequate, in gross disrepair.

These were among the shortcomings identified by an independent investigative committee evaluating conditions at Hawaii’s juvenile detention home.

From excessive use of isolation to discipline youth to woefully inadequate supervision of staff, the report paints a disturbing picture.

Authored in 2009, the report focuses on one facility — Hale Hoomalu on Alder Street in Honolulu, which was closed last year.

The detention home — the only secure juvenile detention facility that served youth statewide — has since been relocated to the new Kapolei judiciary complex. The report, whose findings have not been reported until now, was produced by an investigative committee that included public defenders, law enforcement, academics, detention home staff and others.

Civil Beat obtained a copy marked “DO NOT DISTRIBUTE” from the judiciary, along with an 11-page response detailing some of the steps that have been taken to address the report’s findings.

Hawaii’s senior family court judge told Civil Beat that the facility wasn’t safe or therapeutic for kids.

Judge R. Mark Browning said he welcomed the report’s criticism.

“We gave them access to as much as we could,” he said. “We told them to tell us the good, bad and the ugly.”

“Certainly given the facility that existed at the time — the one at Alder Street, the old detention home — I think it’s absolutely clear to anybody that that’s absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “We did not believe the environment at Alder Street was such that it was safe for kids or that it was therapeutic.”

But whereas Judge Browning had an open attitude, the investigative committee encountered the opposite from detention home staff: “The stance of administration and staff appears to be ‘This is how it has always been done, so this is how we’re going to continue to do it.'”

Youth are kept at the detention home for short sentences or if they are awaiting court hearings and cannot be released to their families for safety reasons.

Yet, detention home conditions were so poor that detained youth were at risk anyway.

“Some youth may be particularly at risk in detention, with staff intentionally or inadvertently contributing to their fear and intimidation,” the report stated.

The assessment was commissioned by the Hawaii State Judiciary as part of a national program focused on identifying alternatives to juvenile detention. The 19-member investigative committee mined data from myriad sources including more than 200 incident reports, 18 months’ worth of grievances, training files, room check sheets and more.

The judiciary says it is working hard to address the issues raised in the report.

“Whatever the criticism was speaks for itself,” Browning said. “The bottom line is — did we take the criticism to heart and move to address what was said to be inadequate? The answer is yes.”

A second assessment due out next month will help determine what progress has been made.

But the 2009 report identified what appeared to be systemic problems. How serious the issues were is evident from the strong language in the report.

‘Grave Deficiencies’ in Youth Safety

The 29-page report goes on to detail a cascade of failures that created an unsafe environment.

Detention home administrators were using an undated policies and procedures manual “circa 1970” that did not meet standards.

The facility had no written policies or procedures regarding child abuse, special incidents or complaint reporting.

The committee raised concerns that “staff are excessively using Work Detail and Isolation, and that Work Detail is psychologically abusive,” the report stated.

One transgender youth on the boys’ side of the detention home felt so threatened by both staff and other boys due to her gender identity that she “used voluntary time-outs to self-isolate excessively,” the report stated.

Surveillance cameras were either broken or incapable of monitoring key areas — a deficiency that had significant consequences.

“Youth reported one youth’s attempt to hang himself inside a room when the other boys were sleeping,” the report stated. “Staff did not see this incident because it occurred outside the camera’s range and were only alerted when the other youth yelled and pounded on the door.”

The report noted that staff were “not adequately trained on suicide precautions or diversion of youth experiencing detoxification.”

In addition, poor programming meant youth spent “far too much time just sitting in boredom. This was particularly acute for the girls, who had far less recreational programming, large muscle recreation, and access to the outdoors than the boys. They spent far too much time just sitting on mats, with a television on.”

Training and Supervision of Staff ‘Woefully Inadequate’

Time and again, the report identified areas in which poor staff training and supervision were to blame.

Mental health treatment plans were inadequate. None of the educators on staff were certified to teach math. Staff training was optional — not required.

“In a substantial departure from generally accepted professional standards, all ‘training’ occurs on the job in a sporadic, hit and miss fashion,” the report stated. “These trainings are not required and are not attended by all.”

Judiciary Response

The judiciary was quick to respond to the criticism, Browning said.

Some were easy fixes. The number of school hours now conforms with state law. Training is no longer optional — it’s mandatory. And juveniles are made aware of their rights soon as they enter the door.

“When a kid comes in, they were always told what their rights were,” Browning said. “Now they’re given it in writing and they initial it. And they’re told about the grievance process and they initial that.”

The Kapolei detention home now counts among its staff a permanent, full-time training coordinator. They’ve tripled the number of teachers from two to six. Mental health staffing now includes a psychiatrist, psychologist, clinical social worker and a therapist.

Detention home admissions have dropped by 35 percent since 2009, when the detention home housed 60 kids.

Admissions are down in part because of effective use of confinement alternatives such as electronic monitoring and supervised release programs, he said.

Still, other improvements appear to be works in progress.

Mental health training among staff — including how to recognize mental illness and regression is “on-going,” according to the judiciary’s written update.

Staff sensitivity and treatment of juveniles is also ongoing, with the training coordinator working to “improve positive behavior management and decrease negative behavior management.”

The judiciary added: “Isolation is rarely used at Kapolei and is no longer used for punishment or in any inappropriate way.”

Detention home administrators have added more programming in an effort to create a more nurturing environment.

The detention home now offers many more after-school programs including art classes, Hawaiian club, life skills classes and yoga.

The 2009 report concluded gravely by noting that “the current custodial milieu … is characterized by obedience, silence and idleness.”

A second independent committee has put the new facility under the microscope for the last few months. But whether conditions have truly improved for Hawaii’s detained youth won’t be clear until its report is made public.

Read the 2009 report:

And the judiciary’s response:

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