Louisiana public defenders don’t know where youths evacuated from detention centers were taken

Six facilities were in Hurricane Ida’s path

By: - September 9, 2021 7:00 am
President Biden tours Hurricane Ida aftermath

Hurricane Ida has destroyed many commercial sections of LaPlace, La. (Photo by Julie O’Donoghue/Louisiana Illuminator)

Public defenders are still scrambling to locate children who were being held at Louisiana detention centers when Hurricane Ida hit last month. Many of these youths were evacuated with no information given to their local defenders, who are now uncertain as to where they are being held.  

Unlike juvenile incarceration facilities, which are run by the state, juvenile detention centers, which mostly contain youths awaiting trial, are run by local jurisdictions. 

To get any kind of evacuation information, public defenders tried to reach local officials while dealing with their own hurricane-related issues, said Richard Pittman, deputy public defender and director of Juvenile Defender Services at the Louisiana Public Defender Board. 

“These lawyers live in the communities and they’re impacted too. Many of them have evacuated and didn’t come back until later so you have some divided attention with these things,” Pittman said. “They do want to know what’s going on with their kids, but many of them are trying to pick up the pieces of their own lives.” 

Pittman pieced together scattered information about most of the six detention centers in the path of the storm, but is still uncertain about some centers. At the St. Bernard Parish Juvenile Detention Center, youths who came to the center from other parishes were evacuated by their parishes separately, to an unknown location. 

The number of youths evacuated was unknown Wednesday.

“I don’t know who, if anyone, was told about their ultimate destinations,” Pittman said. “My people in St. Bernard did not know what happened to those kids, and I still don’t know where those kids are. And I don’t know how many of them there are because there’s no centralized place where that information is kept in anything like real time.” 

While the Office of Juvenile Justice had more transparency about the one juvenile incarceration facility that was evacuated, parents were not notified of the evacuation until all of the youth had been transported.  

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According to Beth Touchet-Morgan, the Office of Juvenile Justice executive management advisor, 38 youths from the Bridge City Center for Youth were taken to Monroe accompanied by more than 60 staff members. Families of the youths weren’t notified before the move for security reasons, Touchet-Morgan said, but were contacted as soon as the youths arrived at the Swanson Center for Youth. 

Touchet-Morgan said they would return to the Bridge City facility as soon as power and water were restored. Staff members that stayed behind are working on cleaning up hurricane debris and preparing the facility for occupation. 

“We just want to make sure we are ready to bring them back whenever we get news that the power and the water has been restored,” Touchet-Morgan said. 

While she said education had been interrupted by the hurricane, homework packets and other materials were sent to Monroe with the children. The youths from Bridge City are separated from the Monroe youths, kept on opposite sides of the facility. 

As the Monroe facility wasn’t at capacity, Touchet-Morgan said housing everyone was relatively easy, with older unused dorms prepared for the Bridge City youths. 

Though the youths have access to social services staff and other mental health resources, some activists are worried about how the youths are affected. 

“Prisons are traumatizing places for children to be in the best of times, let alone during a crisis like Hurricane Ida,” Rachel Gassert, policy director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights said in a statement. “Some of the evacuated youth cannot talk to their families and may not even know where their families are. Education is virtually non-existent and programming is limited. That’s not a rehabilitative environment.”

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Pittman also voiced concerns about holding youths after the hurricane during an extremely stressful pandemic, in which family visits were cut off, and youths were even more isolated from the outside world. 

“I think all the courts should look at these kids, look at these cases and start asking if they’ve been punished enough for whatever they think they may have done and see if it’s time to let some of these kids go whether they’re pre-adjudication or post-adjudication,” Pittman said. “Maybe we should let these kids and their families get on with their lives.”

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

Rachel Mipro has previous experience at WBRZ and The Reveille and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Louisiana State University. At LSU, she worked as an opinion editor for The Reveille and as a nonfiction editor for the university’s creative writing journal. In her free time, she enjoys baking, Netflix and hiking.

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