Mich. county issues public health emergency order amid ‘untenable’ situation at juvenile jail
The order comes days after a top-level employee was fired and a second employee was reassigned following the alleged sexual assault of a child
By Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News
DEARBORN, Mich. — In the wake of an alleged sexual assault of a child at the Wayne County Juvenile Detention Facility, Executive Warren Evans announced the county has issued a public health emergency order for the detention center Tuesday night during his State of the County address.
“The situation has become untenable for nearly 140 youth that are currently residing there,” Evans said in his remarks. “Extraordinary action has become necessary, which is why today I’m calling for a public health state emergency.
“This order, under the powers of the county health officer, will allow us to establish an incident command structure reporting directly to me, which will expedite action to adequately staff and provide therapeutic services in the facility. But in the end, the most important action needed to address the situation is for the state to provide long-term residential beds.”
This comes days after one top-level employee at the facility was fired and a second employee was reassigned to a different job following the alleged sexual assault of a child at the detention facility last week. The incident also prompted the state to intervene at the detention center, bringing staff into the facility to work with the children, add enhanced oversight and work with leaders to ensure the facility is implementing changes.
Michigan State Police are investigating what took place at the facility, and there are seven other licensing investigations underway at the detention center, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Elizabeth Hertel told The Detroit News on Thursday.
The alleged sexual assault and intervention came after months of Wayne County pleading for the state to help them manage overcrowding at the detention facility, which county officials say stems from the state not providing enough residential treatment centers for youth. Hertel said she became involved with the detention center’s concerns in the fall when the existing facility needed aid moving to a new facility.
The juvenile facility, known as the JDF and built to house 80 juvenile offenders, has been at double capacity for months, at times holding up to 150 teenagers. Nearly half of those teenagers have already been adjudicated and a judge has deemed them to be in need of treatment at a residential center, according to the county last week.
“This facility once had a history of being the gold standard; however, we continue to experience overcrowding issues for reasons beyond our control,” Evans said during his Tuesday night speech. “Those include shortages of long-term placement facilities from the state, changes in legislation, and COVID backlogs in court. It’s important to reiterate that we all bear a responsibility for the safety and well-being of those in our custody. But the county is just one piece of that puzzle. The other major piece is state government.
“Right now, we house up to 65 children who are supposed to exit our facility once their cases have been adjudicated — but they can’t because the state hasn’t provided long-term placement. Many of these kids who have been adjudicated have spent more than 100 additional days in detention custody instead of the treatment facilities that they deserve. Many have served far in excess of 100 extra days. As our partnership with the state progresses, our hope is that we’ll be able to rely on them to do their part and get our children out of our facility and into the long-term placements they deserve.”
Evan said after the speech that the public health emergency order will allow the county to “go at a faster rate” to address the situation.
“This creates the ability for me to be closer to it on a regular basis and to be able to make quicker decisions, rather than running them up and down the flagpole,” he said. “We feel like these kids are not safe. Our staff is not safe.”
Evans added overcrowding was the crux of the problem: “I got 140 kids in there; 65 of them should not be there. If the 65 are not there, then I don’t have a manpower shortage.”
Wayne County Commissioner Jonathan Kinloch supported the idea of taking more immediate action at the juvenile facility.
“The executive and his administration has been trying to work with the state government in collegial fashion, but this issue needs to be resolved,” he said. “There’s been no real movement and so, you know, so we have to step it up. These are lives that we should not be making worse. “
Also during his hourlong speech at a packed auditorium at the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center in Dearborn, Evans announced tentative raises for county sheriff’s lieutenants and sergeants, $60 million into public health initiatives and a $10 million boost to clean up the North Branch of Ecorse Creek Downriver. It was the first State of the County address since 2019.
Evans touted a financially healthy county, which is the state’s most populous county with more than 1.7 million residents. Evans is in his third term as county executive in this Democratic stronghold.
“Who would’ve thought that one administration could dodge bankruptcy, resolve the deficiencies we’d inherited, take on a global pandemic and emerge even stronger than before?” Evans said.
“But against those odds, we made it work. Now we’re stronger, more stable, and more financially sound than Wayne County government has been in many, many years,” added Evans, who addressed the crowd with a big screen behind him that said “Survive, Stabilize, Thrive.”
When Evans first took office in 2015, the county grappled with an $82 million accumulated deficit and $52 million structural deficit and many predicted it would join the City of Detroit in declaring bankruptcy. The county has now had eight consecutive balanced budgets, Evans touted.
Evans’ announcement of a tentative deal to raise the pay of Wayne County sheriffs underscores a major issue the county faces post-pandemic: severe staffing shortages. The Detroit News found earlier this year that 1 out 4 Wayne County positions were vacant, and about 60% of those vacancies dealt with staff in the criminal justice system.
The tentative agreement with Sheriff’s Office Local 3317, representing lieutenants and sergeants, will increase wages for its members by more than 23% over the next four years. The agreement still needs approval by the Wayne County Commission. Current employees will also receive a $10,000 retention stipend.
“These are some of the most aggressive wage increases in Wayne County history,” Evans said.
To combat air pollution, the county will construct a system of 100 air monitors, to be placed on lampposts and streetlights, collecting data on air quality, 24/7. It also plans to give out 500 mobile air monitors that clip on backpacks for children with asthma, as well as sensors to be placed on inhalers.
“Together with air quality data, they’ll allow us to learn the air fingerprint of asthma in our communities. We can use that data to take immediate action,” Evans said. “We’ll notify parents when air quality is poor, helping them protect their children so they don’t wind up in the emergency room.”
Evans also announced $10 million toward an “initial heavy maintenance effort” on the North Branch of Ecorse Creek, which runs through multiple Downriver communities. The funding is from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, ARPA, which is intended to help municipalities rebound from the deep economic losses of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the address, Detroit resident Michael Thomas said he was eager to see what Evans would say about keeping various communities safe. Thomas leads a Detroit nonprofit called “Our Community Keepers.” Thomas praised Evans’ track record so far. “I’m eager to hear about the future.”
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