By EDDIE BORGES
There’s a spotlight on the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision as the October deadline nears for implementation of New York’s Raise the Age law, which will for the first time recognize some 16- and 17-year-olds in the criminal justice system as minors, separating the teens from adult populations.
Yet little attention has been paid to the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS)—or to troubling changes at the agency.
The woman who managed the juvenile jails when Human Rights Watch called it “the most hostile system” it had ever encountered in the world is again in charge of the system—and a co-leader on implementation of Raise the Age.
Acting Deputy Commissioner for Juvenile Justice Inés Nieves, who repeatedly swore she would roll back the policies at the heart of the transformation of juvenile justice in New York, has moved to fulfill that pledge.
According to her calendar, obtained by the Queens Tribune under the state Freedom of Information Law, Nieves has been holding meetings to review agency restraint and confinement policies, including handcuffing children. She also had a meeting to review what is a “reportable incident.”
These reforms were instituted as a direct response to conditions in the juvenile jails when Gov. Eliot Spitzer named reform-minded attorney Gladys Carrión commissioner at OCFS in January 2007.
Several months earlier, in September 2006, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union published a joint report denouncing conditions in New York’s juvenile jails.
Three months later, two of Nieves’ workers sat on a rambunctious child until he stopped breathing.
The following month, the New York State inspector general and the Tompkins County district attorney released the findings of a 10-month investigation that described a “near-total breakdown” in the Office of the Ombudsman intended to provide independent oversight and “serious deficiencies in mental health resources and substance abuse treatment.”
Upon taking office, Carrión limited the use of restraints on children to instances in which the children might cause harm to themselves or to someone else. She also created an agency-wide restraint and incident database to track the use of violence against children.
She further created a robust and model Ombudsman’s office and a working Independent Review Board (IRB) that met in person on a regular basis.
Rolling back these reforms would return New York to the dark ages of juvenile justice.
OCFS refuses to release the minutes of the juvenile justice division’s Independent Review Board meetings, which might shed light on why Nieves is reviewing these policies. OCFS even refuses to release the names of the members of the IRB.
Nieves objected to the transformation of juvenile justice from a “custody and control” model to a “trauma informed” model because she spent her career building and managing the old system—where a whole generation of children was lost.
As the OCFS director of communications between December 2007 and June 2010, I witnessed first hand when Nieves, then an associate commissioner, would tell those of us on Carrión’s senior leadership team that as soon as we were gone, “everything will go back to the way it always was.”
The “way it was” under Nieves’ previous tenure was that children were regularly abused, their constitutional rights were violated, and 95 percent were likely to become involved in the criminal justice system again.
Nieves was so fixed on the old model of juvenile justice that she could not understand why I refused to approve reprints of a Resident’s Manual that contained language indicating that children would get demerits for “rolling their eyes” or “gritting their teeth.”
When Carrión was named OCFS commissioner, she conducted a nationwide search for a deputy for juvenile justice. She hired a professional who had implemented reforms in Washington, D.C.; and Pennsylvania—and even for the U.S. Dept. of Justice.
When she retired, Carrión promoted an associate commissioner who is a nationally recognized psychologist in the field of juvenile justice.
Nieves is someone who, 10 years ago, Human Rights Watch, the state inspector general, a local district attorney and the U.S. Dept. of Justice agreed was not fit to run the system.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo promoted her acting deputy commissioner for juvenile justice in January 2014.
New York deserves better.
Eddie Borges is a veteran political reporter and former communications director at the Office of Children and Family Services.