The Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice has transferred at least two children in its custody to a detention facility in Alabama without first informing their families or lawyers, according to the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, a legal advocacy group representing the juveniles. In a statement, the group blasted the decision, calling it an “ admittance of gross failure by the state of Louisiana.”

“The message that’s been sent to them is ‘You are going to be isolated. You are going to be disconnected from your family. You are going to be placed in another state,’” said Aaron Clark-Rizzio, executive director of LCCR in a Wednesday interview. “ And I think our clients clearly understand the message OJJ is trying to send.”

The two juveniles transferred by OJJ aren’t the only kids in Louisiana who are being incarcerated out of state. Last week, The Lens reported some Louisiana youth in parishes around the state who have been arrested but whose cases are still pending are being sent to juvenile detention centers in Alabama, as well as Mississippi. That has been going on for at least several years, and local officials have said it is due to a lack of bed space in the 13 licensed in state facilities for pre-adjudication detention of juveniles. 

But the kids in OJJ custody have already had their cases adjudicated, and are in the custody of the state government, rather than local. They are generally held at one of four state run “secure care” facilities.  LCCR said the transfers are the first time they are aware of kids in state custody being sent across state lines. They called the move “unprecedented.” 

The OJJ transfers do not appear related to two recent high-profile disturbances at Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish and Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe, according to LCCR. 

The transfers of the two juvenile detainees to out-of-state facilities, the group said,  occurred “on, or at some point prior, to Tuesday, June 14th.” That was before the incident at Bridge City Center for Youth, which took place on Thursday, in which 20 kids at the facility took control of parts of the facility, and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office SWAT team was called in. 

June 14, however, was one day after local police were called in in response to a fight that broke out at the Swanson facility, which resulted in one employee at the facility being sent to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, according to the Monroe Police Department. But Clark-Rizzio said that to the best of his knowledge the kids who were transferred were not involved in that incident.  

Clark-Rizzio said he had no explanation for why OJJ would want to transfer the youth, other than they thought of them as “difficult children to care for.” He said he could not tell The Lens which OJJ facility or facilities the two detainees were being held in prior to their transfers. 

The attorney for the children — an LCCR employee — was notified via phone call about the transfers only after they had already taken place, Clark-Rizzio said, and has not yet been able to get in touch with the kids due to a delay in finding out where they were being held and trying to figure out how to get them on the phone at a new facility. Those problems stemmed from a failure at OJJ to plan ahead, he said.

“Attorneys should be able to access their clients,” he said. “What it clearly demonstrates is that there was not a plan to ensure that these children were able to maintain contact with their support structure.”

The Office of Juvenile Justice did not respond to a request for comment or questions from The Lens regarding the reason for the recent transfers, or how many kids in total have been moved out of state. 

‘It’s not explicitly prohibited’

Clark-Rizzio said that the two detainees were sent to a facility in Dothan, Alabama, managed by the non-profit Southeastern Alabama Youth Services — one of the same facilities that local governments around the state have been contracting with to hold kids for pre-trial detention. A representative of Southeast Alabama Youth Services could not immediately be reached for comment.

Under state law, all juvenile detention facilities must be licensed by the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services. That led some juvenile advocates to say that local governments transferring pretrial detainees to out-of-state facilities — which are not licensed by DCFS — was illegal. 

But state regulations define a  “juvenile detention facility” under DCFS jurisdiction as “a facility that provides temporary safe and secure custody of youth during the pendency of juvenile proceeding,” meaning pre-trial facilities only. 

In the case of sentenced juveniles under OJJ’s care, Clark-Rizzio said didn’t think there was anything necessarily illegal about the out-of-state transfers. But he strongly criticized the decision, saying it went against the general principles of juvenile justice in the state, along with national best practices.

“It’s not explicitly prohibited, because honestly people didn’t contemplate that this was a possibility,” he said. “So I don’t even know if people thought it would be necessary to have that in the code — specifically prohibiting such a practice.”

Following the recent incidents, some officials have called for closing down Bridge City, and there have been discussions about possibly reopening the Jetson Center for Youth in Baker, which closed in 2014 and was deemed unsafe. 

But there had been no public discussion of transferring kids across state lines.

In addition, some Department of Public Safety and Corrections staff — who are normally either assigned to guard adult prisons or work as parole or probation officers —  were ordered by Governor John Bel Edwards to supplement OJJ staff at Bridge City and Swanson. Edwards said that the move was necessary due to staffing shortages. Louisiana State Police were also called in to “secure the perimeter of the facilities,” according to a press release.

On Wednesday morning, The Advocate reported that DOC staff working in the juvenile facilities have been authorized to carry tasers and pepper-spray in the facilities, and operate under a less restrictive use of force policy. OJJ policy does not generally allow staff of detention facilities to carry pepper spray, and does not even mention tasers. 

That decision also drew strong criticism from LCCR and other youth justice advocates and experts, who said that increased use-of-force against children was not the correct response to the recent violence.

During its most recent session, the Louisiana Legislature passed a bill that limits the use of solitary confinement for youth, following an investigation by ProPublica, NBC News and The Marshall Project, into the Acadiana Center for Youth, an OJJ facility in St. Martinville. The report found that kids detained in the facility were being held in their cells virtually around the clock and weren’t provided education. That legislation goes into effect in August. 

Alabama does not appear to have similar restrictions on youth solitary confinement, according to a 2020 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

OJJ has given no indication of when the kids might be transferred back to Louisiana, Clark-Rizzio said.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...