A single mother of five is looking for answers after a counselor allegedly broke her son’s arm while trying to break up a fight at Santa Clara County’s Juvenile Hall last month. Angela Lujano said her 17-year-old was rushed to the hospital Jan. 29 with a spiral fracture on his left arm.
“My child is a hundred pounds soaking wet,” she said. “He was unarmed and not resisting, and the counselor, whoever he is, twisted his arm and broke his bone.”
County officials withheld the name of the guard and declined to comment about what happened. But they did confirm that the incident is under investigation by the Sheriff’s Office and the Probation Department, which oversees the juvenile justice division.
“They won’t talk to me about any of that,” Lujano said. “They said they’re sorry, but that they can’t tell me anything else. What I want to know is whether this man is going to be held responsible. I don’t think he should be working with these children.”
San Jose’s juvenile hall has been held up as national model for its emphasis on rehabilitation over retribution. But that hard-won reputation only came after years of reforms prompted by a federal probe into rampant violence.
In the early 2000s, guards—or “counselors,” to use the preferred fuzzword—restrained kids with bone-breaking holds and otherwise excessive physical force. Appalled by the abuse of power, voters approved a measure in 2004 to transfer control of juvenile justice and probation from the courts to the county. In the years since, the juvenile division has tempered its punitive atmosphere while slashing incarceration rates.
Yet child welfare advocates still find occasion to sound the alarm. In 2015, public backlash forced the county to reverse course after approving a policy allowing counselors to use pepper spray on some juvenile hall wards. The provision permitting the inflammatory chemical apparently slipped through without public input as part of a labor contract between probation and juvenile hall officers. According to the latest iteration of the juvenile use-of-force policy, however, chemical agents are still permissible for group counselors to use while transporting youth from one place to another.
From 2011 to 2015, youth arrests and citations in this county fell by 59 percent, referrals to juvenile hall by 41 percent and admissions to the facility by 37 percent. From 2012 to 2016, according to data obtained by San Jose Inside through a public records request, the use of physical and mechanical restraints on incarcerated youth dropped by 30 percent, from 192 reported incidents to 134.
“They’ve made some pretty significant strides,” said Sue Burrell, an attorney at the Youth Law Center who has reviewed the county’s juvenile justice division multiple times. “I have a lot of respect for the current chief of probation, Laura Garnette. But, given the history, we do want to be particularly careful to make sure staff are getting the right kind of training and that they’re using the right techniques.”
Lujano said she has yet to find out what pain compliance technique the counselor used on her son. She said she’s frustrated by how difficult it’s been to squeeze information out from authorities—from the day of the fight until now, more than two weeks later. She said she didn’t hear about her son’s injury until the next day. Her landline rang twice around 3am Jan. 30 and then stopped. Curious, she dialed *69.
“That’s how I found out it was juvenile hall,” she said. “I was like, ‘Juvenile Hall, right?’ He said, ‘Yes. Are you [redacted]’s mother?’ I knew right away that something was wrong, something was not right.”
The caller told her that her son—whose name San Jose Inside is withholding because he’s a minor—had gotten into a fight with another inmate, that a counselor intervened with a restraint and left him with a spiral fracture.
“At first I thought he said, ‘Spinal fracture,’ so I freaked,” Lujano said. “I went off on him and he was saying, ‘Ma’am, ma’am, calm down and let me speak.’”
The juvenile hall staffer told Lujano that her son was sent to San Jose Regional Medical Center, she recalls. Lujano rushed to the hospital, but her son wasn’t there. So she drove eight miles southwest to Valley Medical Center, where she found him medicated and out of sorts, his arm blue, swollen and hoisted in a sling. A spiral fracture, she found out later, is a break that results from a violent twisting force.
According to juvenile hall’s use of force policy—which was last revised in April 2016 and available here to review—staffers are allowed to physically restrain youth if they’re unable to defuse a situation with verbal commands. If they do resort to physical force, however, the staffers involved must follow a strict protocol.
Immediately after an incident where force is required, the group counselors involved have to fill out a report describing the specific circumstances leading up to the use of physical force along with the names of all staff and youth participants. The form must describe all verbal commands given by the counselors, all physical controls used, the level of resistance exhibited and actions of other staffers as the incident played out. Those reports are then submitted to the on-duty supervisor no later than the end of that shift.
Once the supervisor collects those reports from all involved staffers, he or she determines whether the counselor complied with policy and how the accounts compare to video documentation. Employees who break the rules are subject to discipline, as are colleagues who fail to report violations. In event of a major injury, those reports rise up the chain of command.
For Lujano’s son, that chain of command went beyond juvenile hall, prompting additional review by sheriff’s deputies. Lujano said she was denied a copy of her son’s incident report because it was part of an ongoing investigation. She has tried to elicit details from her son, who’s going on his fourth month behind bars on charges of car theft. Lujano said he repeatedly told the counselor that he wasn’t resisting.
“The officer didn’t listen,” Lujano said. “And, yes, I know that my son shouldn’t be fighting in there, and he knows that, too. But he doesn’t deserve to get his arm broken. He’s a kid. They’re supposed to protect him in there.”