O’Melveny Joins Children’s Advocates in Lawsuit Aimed at Protecting Detained Children From COVID-19May 14, 2020
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NEW YORK—May 14 2020—O’Melveny filed a lawsuit today against the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) for endangering the physical and mental health of children in their care during the coronavirus pandemic.
O’Melveny is representing the plaintiffs alongside the Promise of Justice Initiative, Juvenile Law Center, and the Law Office of John Adcock.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of all children incarcerated in OJJ’s four secure care facilities, asks a federal court to order the immediate release of children—including those who are medically compromised—who can safely be returned to their communities. The lawsuit also asks for the implementation of new protocols to protect youth who remain in custody, as well as facility staff.
“O’Melveny is proud to join forces with our dedicated co-counsel organizations to protect the constitutional rights of these especially vulnerable children who have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19,” said O’Melveny partner Stuart Sarnoff, who is leading the O’Melveny team.
“Louisiana’s stated purpose for detaining these children is rehabilitation, not punishment. While held in the state’s facilities, these children are constitutionally entitled to adequate rehabilitative educational and developmental treatment, as well as to live in safe and sanitary conditions. Yet they are living in communal, unsanitary dormitories that expose them to a very serious risk of contracting and spreading the deadly virus,” added O’Melveny counsel Laura Aronsson. “We need to do what we can to improve their situation.”
The O’Melveny team also includes partners Lisa Pensabene and Ben Singer, as well as associates Brandon Amash, Mariam Kamran, and Jason Yan.
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The co-counsel organizations issued the following press release:
Class Action Lawsuit Filed to Release Children from Louisiana’s Dangerous Juvenile Correctional Facilities Amidst Pandemic
Complaint Details Appalling Conditions, Grave Risk of Infection, and Dire Need for Action
NEW ORLEANS, LA – Children’s advocates filed a lawsuit today against the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) for endangering the physical and mental health of youth in their care during the coronavirus pandemic.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of all children incarcerated in OJJ’s four secure care facilities, asks a federal court to order the immediate release of children – including those who are medically compromised - who can be safely returned to their communities and the implementation of new protocols to protect youth who remain in custody as well as facility staff.
“OJJ has demonstrated over and over that they are incapable of keeping kids safe during this pandemic – physically, mentally, and emotionally,” said Mercedes Montagnes, Executive Director of the Promise of Justice Initiative, which is representing the plaintiffs alongside Juvenile Law Center, the Law Office of John Adcock, and the international law firm O’Melveny & Myers.
“These children are especially vulnerable, living in communal, unsanitary dormitories that expose them to a very serious risk of contracting and spreading the deadly virus,” added Laura Aronsson, litigation counsel for O’Melveny.
Of the 29 children tested to date, 28 have been positive for COVID-19. There are an additional 41 confirmed cases among staff members. The actual numbers are likely much higher, given that OJJ ceased testing youth weeks ago and continues ill-advised practices, such as transporting children between facilities for non-medical reasons and failing to deep clean areas where infected youth have been housed. At least one sick child requested to be tested for COVID-19 and was denied.
Unfortunately, even the steps that OJJ has taken to slow the spread of the virus are in many instances counterproductive, more likely to aggravate than mitigate children’s fragile emotional and psychological well-being under these circumstances. Children are locked in their dorms for 23 hours a day with little to no education or programming. Few youth have had any meaningful contact with their families, even though family connection is one of the key factors in preventing re-offending.
“Exposing children to grave medical risk while simultaneously shutting down programming is truly the worst of both worlds,” said Marsha Levick, Chief Legal Officer of Juvenile Law Center. “Stripping children of their liberty in the name of treatment but instead locking them in highly confined spaces flips public health strategy on its head and ignores the constitutional rights of children in state custody. The rules of a pandemic upend prevailing norms; as many children as can be safely returned to their communities must be, as quickly as possible.”
According to the lawsuit, OJJ has not provided parents with adequate information on what the agency is doing to protect or treat their children. In fact, at least one mother was not informed when her son tested positive for COVID-19, despite numerous attempts to contact the facility.
“Families are being left in the dark,” said Gina Womack, Executive Director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. “The people in charge of caring for their children won’t tell parents what’s going on and many have not been able to speak to their kids in weeks. They are rightfully sick with worry and want their kids home.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of children in OJJ’s secure care facilities, who can range in age from 10 to 21. Parents are named as plaintiffs if their child is under 18.
O’Melveny & Myers LLP is an international law firm with a vibrant and award-winning pro bono practice. With so many people in distress as a result of COVID-19, access to legal advice is critical. O’Melveny is committed to helping those most vulnerable. Visit us at omm.com.
Juvenile Law Center advocates for rights, dignity, equity and opportunity for youth in the foster care and justice systems. Founded in 1975, Juvenile Law Center is the first non-profit, public interest law firm for children in the country. We fight for youth through litigation, appellate advocacy and submission of amicus (friend-of-the-court) briefs, policy reform, public education, training, consulting, and strategic communications. For more information about Juvenile Law Center’s work, visit www.JLC.org.
Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) is a statewide multigenerational grassroots organization that focuses on ensuring every child has an opportunity to grow and thrive especially those who are deprived equitable opportunities and pushed into the school to prison pipeline. Learn more at fflic.org.
Katy Otto, Juvenile Law Center, firstname.lastname@example.org 240-478-9387
Brandon Jacobsen, O’Melveny & Myers, email@example.com 213-430-8024