Juvenile Justice Workers Say Violence Is Escalating At St. Charles Youth Center

Aug 28, 2017

DJJ educator Maria Johnston-Becker, surrounded by fellow employees, talks about the attack at IYC-St. Charles that put her on medical leave.
Credit Guy Stephens/ WNIJ

Employees of the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles picketed outside the center Monday to protest what they say is escalating violence against staff and among the youth.

A few dozen juvenile justice specialists and educators gathered along the highway outside the center, waving signs saying “safety first” and “we protect you, who protects us?” while passing cars and trucks honked in response.  Several then told their stories of unprovoked attacks that left them with severe and lingering injuries, while the perpetrators suffered no repercussions.

Ashley Landres is president of Local 416 of AFSCME, the union that represents the employees. A juvenile justice specialist, she also was a victim of a physical assault by youth at the facility. Landres said youth also assault staff verbally, and with feces and urine, on a daily basis.

She said the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice essentially lets youth in its care run free.

“The kids destroy the state property,” she said. “They continuously hit staff, they continuously beat each other up. It’s complete anarchy inside these gates.”

Maria Johnston-Becker is an educator at the facility.  She was the victim of an unprovoked assault June 28 that left her so battered and bruised that she’s still on medical leave trying to recover.  Johnston-Becker said there are no consequences when juveniles attack staff or other youths, and victims have little or no recourse to respond.

“If I’m walking down the street, and someone spits in my face or punches me in the face,” she said, “I can file, go and write a report of assault and battery. I don’t understand why management is not taking the safety of their staff members seriously.”   

Landres said no one is advocating going back to some of the more extreme methods that resulted in the department being put under a consent decree some years ago. But she said the pendulum has gone too far in the other direction.

Landres said employees want management in Springfield to listen to their complaints and use that input to create common-sense guidelines that will provide real consequences for offenders, to better protect staff and the other youth who are endangered by such actions.

Johnston-Becker said the department needs to craft policies and provide training to help create a safer environment, so that education and rehabilitation can take place like they’re supposed to.  

Statement from a spokesman at the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice:

“The safety of staff and youth is of utmost importance to the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. The Department is deeply committed to improving the safety and climate of our facilities while providing constitutionally required, effective programming. To accomplish these goals, we have and will continue to focus on hiring, training, and minimizing the use of solitary confinement and excessive physical force to manage youth behavior. 

While IDJJ has historically been understaffed, we have increased hiring and now exceed federal standards for staff-to-youth ratios at all facilities. Going forward, the Department will continue to prioritize filling critical staff vacancies in security, mental health, and education as quickly as possible. 

The Department will also continue to expand training opportunities for staff in conflict de-escalation, crisis intervention, safe physical intervention techniques, appropriate use of force, and intensive behavior management. This coincides with research-based approaches to intervening with high-risk youth and strategic use of security staff in identified areas of potential conflict.”