Judge orders transfer of boys from Salem juvenile home
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Boys under the age of 15 are in peril at the state's maximum-security facility for juveniles and must be removed immediately, a circuit court judge ordered Thursday.
The unexpected court order may spell the beginning of the end for the West Virginia Industrial Home for Youth in Salem, which opened its doors 113 years ago.
Mercer County Circuit Court Judge Omar Aboulhosn ordered a handful of children under the age of 15 to be removed from the facility immediately because of Salem's prison-like conditions.
An expert witness told Aboulhosn on Tuesday that the state should immediately begin to close Salem. At the hearing, the judge said he would not rule until the end of the year. But he decided some children locked away at Salem could not wait that long.
"Once again, the un-rebutted testimony of the witness clearly made the point that the safety and wellbeing of juveniles 14 years and younger at (Salem) are in peril and therefore justice in this matter cannot be delayed," Aboulhosn said in his order.
As of Nov. 1, only three residents at Salem were under the age of 15, but Aboulhosn's grave concern about its conditions could be a sign of broader things to come.
A more comprehensive order is still expected by the end of the year or in very early January.
The witness, juvenile corrections expert Peter DeMuro, said Salem is "totally inappropriate" for children and young adults. Salem currently houses about 74 juveniles up to the age of 21. He urged an orderly but rapid removal of all children from Salem, starting with the youngest boys.
Aboulhosn also used his order Thursday to Cindy Largent-Hill to oversee court-ordered reforms of the state Division of Juvenile Services, which operates Salem and the state's other 11 juvenile centers. Largent-Hill is a former director of the division and has already been appointed by the state Supreme Court to monitor the juvenile justice system.
Aboulhosn ordered the division to give Largent-Hill "unfettered and unrestricted access" to all of its facilities at any time, even without notice.
The division has generally cooperated with a lawsuit brought against it by Charleston legal aide firm Mountain State Justice. The lawsuit against the division is on behalf of two Salem inmates.
The division agreed in mid-September to make numerous changes after DeMuro found operations at Salem are inappropriate for troubled youth. Salem's staff had previously prohibited residents from talking during meals, for instance.
But DeMuro said Tuesday those earlier changes did not go far enough. DeMuro's ultimate goal is to get children out of large institutions like Salem.
Aboulhosn on Thursday ordered the younger boys to be sent to smaller state-run homes.
At the beginning of the month, one 13-year-old and two 14-year-olds were locked up at Salem, Largent-Hill said. Current numbers were not immediately available Thursday.
"Try to imagine as a 13-year-old or young 14-year-old to hear a steel door go shut and you're locked in that room," Largent-Hill said.
Salem has a long history.
It was created by the state Legislature in 1897. Lawmakers wanted a place to put girls who were found to have "incorrigible or vicious conduct" and "vagrancy" or had been spotted in "houses of ill fame or assignation houses (brothels)." The facility opened its doors in May 1899. It began accepting boys nearly a century later. This week, the institution housed about 74 juveniles up to the age of 21 at its main site, known as Building A.
The juvenile services division has been gradually reducing its use of Salem. Six years ago, there were about 180 juveniles there. There is another facility on the Salem campus for juvenile sex offenders, but its future has not been addressed this week.
The multi-million dollar Building A was designed and built just over a decade ago by the Regional Jail Authority, which runs the state's adult jails. The facility has been called stark and too prison-like.
"They just didn't get the right advice on how to build (Salem)," Juvenile Services Deputy Director Denny Dodson said in an interview earlier this week.
Building A is so stark DeMuro recommended it be turned over to the adult prison system if all the juveniles eventually are removed.
Still, Dodson encouraged observers to "overlook the building" and look at the kinds of care troubled youths are receiving there, even though the division seems to agree smaller facilities are truly the best option in the long run.
Salem employs about 200 people in North Central West Virginia.