Following the horrific death of a 16-year-old foster youth in a Michigan residential treatment facility – who died of cardiac arrest after staff pinned him on the ground and constricted his breathing – New York advocates are calling for the state to bar face-down restraints in facilities for the highest-needs children, calling the practice “dangerous” and “barbaric.”
“These restraints are prohibited in virtually every other residential child care facility in New York state because they are known to risk death or serious harm. This dangerous practice must be ended now,” Dawne Mitchell, attorney-in-charge for the Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Practice, wrote in a June 30 letter to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Sheila Poole, commissioner of the state’s Office of Children and Family Services. Mitchell said the child clients her office represents “regularly report being subjected to the trauma of unnecessary physical restraints and excessive force, including prone restraints.”
In the letter to Cuomo, Mitchell alleges New York has allowed face-down or “prone restraints” in its treatment centers for high-needs foster youth, even though the practice is banned in facilities for people with developmental disabilities and mental health challenges.
The U.S. Department of Justice warned after a 2009 investigation into the use of physical restraints in Children and Family Services’ juvenile facilities that “prone” restraints come with a high risk of serious injury or death. In 2006, a 15-year-old resident at a now-closed upstate detention facility died after multiple staff deployed such a technique. His death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner, as happened in the May 1 Michigan killing, where three facility staff have been charged in the death of Cornelius Fredericks at the Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo.
The Legal Aid Society, which represents most of New York City’s foster youth in family court, was prompted to write the letter in part by the death of Fredericks, a Black teenager who according to a lawyer for the family moaned “I can’t breathe” before dying.
Facility staff were observed on video “with their weight on Resident A’s chest, abdomen, and legs, making this an unsafe and excessive restraint,” reads a state investigation into the incident, released in mid-June.
Video footage of the incident published Tuesday appears to show at least seven men pinning Fredericks on the ground. The restraint occurred after the teenager threw a sandwich at another youth in the facility, designed to serve those with behavioral problems and other challenges.
The case has drawn new attention to similarly dangerous practices still deployed in New York, youth advocates say. According to Lawyers for Children, which also represents New York City foster youth, in April 2019, a boy in the care of a Children and Family Services-certified facility was rendered quadriplegic due to a physical restraint by staff.
“He is not the first child in an OCFS-licensed facility to be seriously injured from the use of these restraints, but he should be among the last,” said Karen Freedman, executive director of Lawyers For Children, in an emailed statement. Freedman described the children in residential treatment facilities where potentially dangerous restraints are deployed as some of the most vulnerable and in need of protection – not further harm.
“The use of prone restraints is dangerous, barbaric and should shock the conscience of all New Yorkers in any circumstances, but especially with children who have suffered multiple traumas,” she said. “It is unfathomable that the State of New York allows this practice to continue to be used on children in foster care when it has been banned in virtually every other residential setting licensed to care for children.”
Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment by Tuesday evening, and has not responded to the Legal Aid Society’s letter. A spokesperson for the Office of Children and Family Services declined to comment in an emailed response to a reporter. The Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, a nonprofit trade association whose members include residential treatment centers for foster youth, also declined to comment.