As early as January 1998 the JJC, Juvenile Justice Commission, had sent a letter to then County Manager Michael LaPolla citing the conditions that youth offenders were being held under at the Union County Juvenile Detention Center.
The letter called for action to be taken regarding overcrowding, rodent infestation caused by the children being served meals in their rooms, keeping the children locked in their rooms for extended periods of time which was the result of “splitting” the youths into groups and allowing them out into the common area a group at a time.
Six weeks later Frank Guzzo, the Director of the Department of Human Services for Union County reported in writing that “resident meals are served on the facility’s main floor, steps have been taken to increase the amount of time youth are out of their rooms”, Mr. Guzzo’s letter further stated that the “county has a strategic plan in place to construct a new facility” and also a short term plan to address issues that contribute to overcrowding.
Two and a half years later in June of 2000, the JJC sent another letter to Frank Guzzo advising the detention center to discontinue feeding youths in their rooms and discontinue the practice of “splitting”. The letter also required that the detention center was to notify JCC’s Compliance Monitoring Unit of all critical incidents as required by the Manual of Standards. It seems that the detention center had failed to notify JCC of three suicide attempts between February and May of 2000.
Over the course of the next three years letters between the JJC and the county went back and forth and back and forth with the county written a letter by the NJ State Attorney General jointly with the JJC. Each letter called for the end of the practice of “splitting” as well as serving meals to the children in their rooms and each letter from the county reported that the practices would be discontinued.
One letter to the chairwoman of the Board of Freeholders dated January 28, 2003 stated “Conditions at the facility warrant a referral to the Department of Human Services” to determine whether conditions at the facility meet the “abuse/neglect criteria”.
The letter from the Acting Attorney General sent on April 3 of 2003 demanded once again that the county discontinue the practice of “splitting” yet about a month later, when Eddie Sinclair was admitted to the center on Mothers Day, May 10; he committed suicide when left alone in his room. His roommates were permitted out of the room when it was time for their “split” but Sinclair had been placed in a 24-hour lock down, only permitted out of his room for limited purposes, which was also a violation.
At a recent Freeholder meeting earlier this month, the board approved the financing of the new Juvenile Detention Center to be erected in Linden. What took so long? What didn’t these people understand? Did it take the death of a teenager and now the lawsuit which is following to motivate them? Why are the letter writers, who obviously stretched the truth about changes at the center, still employed? Did they take it upon themselves or were they directed to embellish or misrepresent the improvements at the center and if so by who?
It appears doubtful that anyone will be held accountable for the deplorable conditions that these children have endured. No municipality in Union County has been spared the wrath of drug abuse by teens, Eddie Sinclair could have been anyone’s child, he could have been from Summit, New Providence, Westfield or Fanwood, it is time that we acknowledge this fact and take an interest in how our juvenile offenders are treated.
To read the chronological report from the JCC please visit http://www.childadvocate.state.nj.us/downloads/es_report.pdf and weigh the facts for yourself.