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Juvenile Justice Reform: Tenn. Works Towards Therapeutic Approach


NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee is one of 10 states that still allows children to be isolated in detention centers through solitary confinement.

The fact was highlighted in a recent report by the pro bono program at the law firm Lowenstein Sandler.

But Rob Johnson, communications director for the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, says while that might be true on paper, the state has revised its practice.

"We've changed the way that we interact with the kids," he explains. "So, when it comes to seclusion, by policy, we now only allow a child to be in seclusion for an extremely limited number of reasons and only for 60 minutes."

Johnson says a justification for seclusion occurs when a child is a danger to him or herself or others, and if detention center employees feel the confinement should exceed 60 minutes, medical and psychological professionals should be involved.

Linda O'Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, says while the state is working to change its approach to juveniles in custody, it's important to note that local jurisdictions aren't required to follow the same protocol.

"We know solitary confinement is not good for children, it can do psychological damage, increase suicide rates," she explains. "In all facilities we really need to be looking at the kinds of adverse childhood experiences these young people have had and figuring out ways to really support them to move beyond them in a positive way."

Tennessee is working to get youth development centers accredited. Johnson says that process has inspired a renewed interest in juvenile reform.

"We are doing a much better job of keeping kids closer to home, and the least restrictive setting possible because a lot of these kids have educational needs, they have mental health needs, they have behavioral needs, and if those can be treated in a less restrictive setting, that's where we're going to go first," he states.

According to the
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Tennessee's rate of juveniles placed in federal residential facilities has decreased by at least 50 percent since 2006.