A lawsuit was filed against Kern County on Wednesday by two disability rights groups claiming that youth in the county’s correctional facilities were discriminated against.

Disability Rights California and Disability Rights Advocates assert that youths with mental and behavioral disabilities in Juvenile Hall and other county facilities were subjected to restraints, solitary confinement of up to 23 hours a day and pepper spray for non-violent acts more than other youths in 2017.

The report also alleges that youth were not provided with adequate mental health treatment or special education services.

The lawsuit specifically targets Kern County, the county Probation Department, department Chief TR Merickel, the Superintendent of Schools office and Superintendent Mary Barlow.

“We hope that our investigation … will lead to meaningful reform and that the young people with disabilities in Kern County’s care will soon be receiving the supports and services they need,” said Freya Pitts, an attorney for DRA.

The claims came out of a six-month investigation into Juvenile Hall, the Crossroads Juvenile Correctional Treatment Facility and Camp Erwin Owen. The groups interviewed 50 youths across the three facilities, they said.

DRA and DRC filed the lawsuit on behalf of three currently detained teens who are plaintiffs in the case. The lawsuit, which was filed in the United States District Court in Fresno, seeks relief for the plaintiffs and coverage of legal costs for the suit.

The report says that through the investigation, it’s been determined that there were 340 cases of pepper spray use in 2017 across all facilities. In January 2017 alone, the organizations say seven of nine pepper spray incidents involved people with known disabilities.

As for solitary confinement, the report says that over a period of six months at the Juvenile Hall, there were at least 23 times when a youth was isolated for at least 70 hours. Of those placed in isolation, the groups say that two-thirds of them were people who were taking medication that affected their mental state.

In written responses provided to the two groups, the Kern County Probation Department and Kern County Superintendent of Schools Mary Barlow expressed their disagreement with the findings of the report.

The KCPD said the allegations are inaccurate and based on unverified, anonymous statements.

The department said the investigation wasn’t the result of any specific complaints against the department and made it clear that the facilities are frequently audited and reviewed by several independent agencies and haven’t been found to be non-compliant in any way.

The department emphasized that the safety and well-being of the youth in its charge is their highest priority and that the department offers many services and programs to help them.

“The staff of the Probation Department are dedicated men and women who seek this profession precisely because they care about the youth in our community. They continually strive to make a positive difference in these young lives everyday despite the challenges common to their work environment,” Chief Probation Officer TR Merickel said.

The department said it is open to implementing new, better ways to rehabilitate and educate youth. In its letter, the department said it would be open to having an independent expert come in to examine its policies and procedures for handling youths with disabilities.

Barlow said she believes the Superintendent of Schools office provides adequate education to youths in the county facilities.

“KCSOS strongly believes that we do in fact provide safe, supportive and positive educational learning to all students residing in these facilities. We will continue to work closely with the Kern County Probation Department in improving the educational services provided to all students residing in local facilities,” she said.

Barlow went on to say that while her office coordinates with the KCPD for the education of students at the facilities, KCSOS has no authority over the policies and procedures that the department implements and therefore couldn’t speak to the allegations not dealing with education.

The disability rights groups said they were satisfied with the responses from the county agencies.

“The county has responded very responsibly to our investigation,” said Melinda Bird, an attorney with DRC. “We are pleased that the county and Superintendent of Schools … agreed to bring in several independent experts to assess the county system and make recommendations for reform.”

Disability Rights California aims to help people with disabilities through advocacy, education, investigation and litigation. Disability Rights Advocates is a nonprofit disability rights legal center focused on equal rights for people with disabilities.

Joseph Luiz can be reached at 395-7368 or by email at jluiz@bakersfield.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @JLuiz_TBC. 

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