Three arrested as city DOI releases scathing report on Close to Home oversight

Three arrested as city DOI releases scathing report on Close to Home oversight

April 14, 2016

The New York City Department of Investigation announced the arrest of one current and two former employees of a nonprofit-run home for juvenile offenders where, last June, three teenagers left undetected, escaped to an Internet cafe and raped a Brooklyn woman. Andrew Best, Soraya Delancey and Stanley Stephens were arrested and charged with various misdemeanor counts, accused of falsifying security logbooks and failing to conduct required security checks.

Boys Town, the nonprofit provider that operated the facility, housed the three teenagers as a part of the city Administration of Children’s Services’ Close to Home program, which places juvenile offenders in city-contracted facilities near their home communities and provides them with more restorative social services like therapeutic treatment and specialized instruction. Boys Town and ACS terminated the nonprofit's Close To Home contract last July.

The employees’ arrests were announced in conjunction with the release of a DOI report that chronicles lax security measures and employee negligence at Boys Town’s “non-secure placement,” or NSP, facilities.

“This investigation showed a pervasive lack of oversight of city-contracted juvenile homes that resulted in a tragedy on June 1st of last year,” DOI Commissioner Mark Peters said in a statement. “The city and ACS have an obligation to safeguard both the public and the juveniles entrusted to their care, an obligation they failed to meet for several years.”

According to DOI, which reviewed hundreds of hours of security camera footage, night staff at the Boys Town facility routinely failed to conduct required bed checks and faithfully record them.

Instead, DOI said, night staff employees were often observed retiring to unused bedrooms or reclining with pillows during their shifts. The report states that in the month leading up to the June incident, Boys Town staff conducted only 15 percent of required checks. Even after the highly publicized incident, only 51 percent of required checks were conducted.

The report suggests that Boys Town’s negligence was not limited to the arrested employees; six additional employees failed to conduct required checks and made misleading entries in the nonprofit’s logbooks, according to the report. DOI’s video investigation also revealed 11 nights when staffers left the premises, in some cases leaving the youths unattended for periods ranging from a few minutes to over an hour.

The report also faults Boys Town management for failing to monitor video surveillance in real time – despite having the ability to do so – and for failing to address known alarm system vulnerabilities. Boys Town sites were also chronically understaffed and experienced frequent staff turnover, with 10 of the 21 budgeted night staff positions vacant for significant periods of time, according to ACS documents reviewed by DOI. Several overnight staffers also told ACS that double shifts were commonplace at Boys Town.

Peters said that he did not know whether any of the arrested individuals had worked double shifts during the timeframe that DOI investigated.

Additionally, the DOI report contends that the wrongdoing at Boys Town is not an isolated phenomenon. “The safety deficiencies that ACS failed to detect at Boys Town are issues that exist throughout the Close to Home NSP program,” the report says, citing the fact that six out of nine nonprofit providers had, at some point during the past four years, been placed under heightened ACS review due to safety concerns.

Peters said that he did not know how many city-contracted nonprofits were currently under some form of ACS review. According to ACS, the agency conducted site visits to all 27 non-secure placement sites between June and August 2015 to assess potential safety or security concerns and found no issues that necessitated a heightened review status. An ACS spokesperson said that three providers are currently under some form of review.

The DOI report also included a series of recommendations in response to ACS’ failings to prevent the Boys Town incident, which ACS has said it will adopt. The recommendations include creating a universal logbook for NSP sites, conducting regular unannounced site visits, more frequently auditing programs and more habitually monitoring video surveillance.

“As we got into this investigation, we found significant continuing safety issues, including failure to supervise and the lack of safety requirements of the NSP providers,” Peters told New York Nonprofit Media on Wednesday. “While ACS has taken a great many steps in the past few weeks to fix that, prior to a month ago, there were significant issues in both monitoring, supervision and requirements that are very much live issues.”

However, ACS contends that the agency has already made significant progress with regard to safety. Between 2013 and 2015, for example, the number of AWOLs from NSP sites decreased by 69 percent, according to an ACS representative. Additionally, the representative said that many of the report’s recommendations, including the creation of updated monitoring mechanisms, have been integrated into agency policy for months.

“As they started their Close to Home programs, both ACS and the agencies themselves identified concerns and built in additional safety measures to protect youth, staff and the communities,” said Mary Jane Dessables, director of information, research and accountability at the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies.

Nonprofit advocates also say that examples of wrongdoing by other providers listed in the DOI report are outdated and irrelevant. For example, the report cites “chronic AWOL concerns” at Queens locations run by The Children’s Village, but those locations have not been in operation for years. The report also mentions safety concerns at sites run by New York Foundling and St. Vincent’s Services, providers that haven’t operated Close to Home NSP sites since 2013.

ACS also said that it had secured more funding to address safety concerns in the Close to Home program. According to the agency, the de Blasio administration has added $4 million to the Close to Home budget, allowing the agency to hire 35 additional oversight positions.

But Peters insists that money alone cannot ensure safety at NSP sites.

“There were clearly issues that have nothing to do with budget,” Peters said. “For example, the failure to be reviewing the surveillance video, the failure to report on broken alarms, ACS’ failure to be properly supervising this, those are not budget issues.”

Peters also added that he did not think that additional paperwork and audit requirements would burden nonprofit and ACS staff. “If you are running a juvenile justice, law enforcement program, you need to run it in a way that keeps everyone safe. That’s all there is to it,” Peters said.

However, ACS cautioned against losing sight of the larger societal gains brought forth by the Close to Home program, despite early setbacks.

“Until recently, New York City's youth were shipped hundreds of miles from their homes and communities, which negatively impacted both the youth and the communities they returned to,” ACS said in a statement. “Close to Home is a massive transformation in the city's approach to juvenile justice and along with other juvenile justice reforms, has led to an all-time low youth crime rate.”

Jeff Stein