Heads roll in wake of juvenile detention center sexual assault

UNION COUNTY — After a former county juvenile detention officer was charged with engaging in a sexual relationship with a teenage detainee for more than a year, heads rolled in Linden at the Union County Juvenile Detention Center.

The shakeup followed the arrest June 3 of former detention officer Sherrie Brown-Braswell, 37, of Raleigh, North Carolina, who was charged by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office with second-degree sexual assault and fourth-degree criminal sexual contact.

The arrest followed a joint investigation by the prosecutor’s office Special Prosecutions Unit and Union County Police Department, which uncovered that the alleged sexual contact between Brown-Braswell and the male victim took place between March 2012 and January 2013.

According to information obtained from the prosecutor’s office, all of the sexual contact occurred at the Linden detention facility while Brown-Braswell was on duty. The former county employee resigned early last year, according to a statement from the prosecutor’s office.
Brown-Braswell turned herself into authorities on June 2 and is being held in the county jail on $350,000 bail.

The Prosecutor’s Office did not indicate how long the investigation took or how it was discovered there had been an illicit sexual relationship between Brown-Braswell and the teenage county detention center victim for such a long period of time.

Fallout came quickly. At the Union County Freeholder meeting last week, County Manager Al Faella read a prepared statement regarding the shakeup at the Union County Juvenile Detention Center, and pointed out that two top employees of the facility would be leaving.

“While this arrest is still an allegation, the County of Union has zero tolerance for any such incident and we are committed to providing a safe atmosphere and positive alternatives to juveniles under our supervision while maintaining the safety of our community as a whole,” said the county manager, immediately pointing out that the superintendent and his assistant were leaving.

Faella did not go into any details about why Greg Lyons, superintendent of the detention center and a 38-year employee of the county making $100,279 a year, was retiring as of July 1 or why Tina Matlock, the assistant superintendent who worked for the county the last five years making $89,474, suddenly resigned her position effective Sept. 1.
County sources said these two employees were told they had a choice: retire, resign or be fired.

In 2010 the 76-bed facility entered into an agreement with Bergen County to provide up to 20 secure detention beds for its juvenile detention population. The contract was expected to generate up to $800,000 in annual revenue for the Linden facility.

In March 2008, after years debating the issue and making promises to the state that they would be building a larger capacity facility; the county replaced the 34-bed Elizabeth detention center with a new state-of-the-art 76-bed center in Linden.

It took two-years to build the new facility, which not only increased the number of troubled youth that could be housed there, but also shifted the focus of the program so troubled youth could be helped.

Despite ongoing issues at the center, the county was selected by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the state to become a Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative site. This honor was expected to bring systemic change to the family court system and help improve conditions at the facility.

In June 2009 the county entered into a contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide 15 beds for undocumented juveniles needing a secure placement pending court process of their resident status in federal court.

This program was the first of its kind in the tri-state area and one of only five such arrangements in the nation. However, the county also stood to gain financially from this program and they did. In slightly less than a year the county managed to deposit $1.2 million into its coffers as a result.

Although Brown-Brazwell’s sexual relationship with the juvenile detention inmate went on for more than a year, as recently as April the detention center received accreditation from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care for compliance within a wide scope of standards in health services. This was quite a feat since only 500 facilities nationally receive such recognition.

Frank Guzzo, director of the Union County Department of Human Services, which includes the detention center in Linden, noted at the time of the accreditation there were no correctional healthcare standards more stringent, or an accreditation program as thorough, as the NCCHC.

The NCCHC’s standards for juvenile detention centers address nine general areas, according to the NCCHC, including healthcare services and support, juvenile treatment and care, special needs and services, governance and administration, personnel and training, safety, health records, health promotion and medical and legal issues.

Although the county juvenile detention center received accolades in recent years for efforts to provide a new system of detention for youth, the incident involving Brown-Braswell is not the first time the facility came under fire.

Beginning in 1998 the Juvenile Justice Commission raised a number of concerns about practices at the detention center with the Union County Board of Freeholders, Guzzo and the facility’s superintendent, according to a 2004 report LocalSource obtained from the New Jersey Office of Child Advocates.

Although the JJC expressed concern about the facility’s structural shortcomings and space limitations, they primarily focused on practices which led to prolonged periods of time when juveniles were forced to remain in their rooms, alone.

Other practices repeatedly called into question by the JJC included separating juveniles into groups or “splits” and allowing the splits out of their rooms on a rotating basis; locking down juveniles in their rooms for excessive periods of time; and routinely isolating new juveniles during the first 24-hours after admission.

The JJC pointed out to the county, Guzzo and the superintendent that the “Manual of Standard” regarding isolating juveniles is “psychologically and medically unsound and shall not be practiced.”

In 1998, while the center was still housed in Elizabeth, questions surfaced about the conditions at the detention center. Specifically, the Juvenile Justice Commission sent a letter to the county manager at the time, Michael LaPolla, citing rodent infestation, overcrowding and juveniles being locked in their rooms for extended periods of time as issues that needed to be addressed.

Six weeks later Guzzo submitted a report to the JJC that efforts were made to address these conditions and the county had a “strategic plan in place” to construct a new facility. It is noteworthy that while the issue of constructing a new juvenile detention center was discussed, it would be ten years before that new facility was actually built and open.

Less than three years later the JJC had to send another letter to Guzzo because the county still had not resolved issues involving “splits” and leaving detainees in their rooms for extended periods of time.

The county center was brought under additional fire by the JJC in 2000 when it was discovered the county detention center failed to report three suicide attempts between February and May 2000, as required by the Manual of Standards.

Over the next three years the detention center got into more hot water, with letters flying back and forth between the state agency and county, including one penned jointly by the state attorney general and JJC. Each called for the facility to immediately end the practice of “splitting” and keeping detainees locked in their rooms. County and detention center officials continued to maintain that these practices ended, but the JJC learned this was not true and the facility was still routinely locking down all confined youth and grouping them into “splits.”

One letter from JJC from 2003 that went to then Freeholder Board Chairman Deborah Scanlon actually indicated conditions at the detention center had deteriorated to the point that it warranted a referral to the New Jersey Department of Human Services to see whether the facility actually met the “abuse/neglect criteria.”

According to the New Jersey Office of the Child Advocate, even though the state admonished the county for these practices and the county vowed to abide by the Manual of Standard, they did not. This was shortly before one of the detainees, left alone when his roommates were “split” and sent to a common room, committed suicide.

The detainee, under 24-hour lockdown, was only allowed out of his room for limited purposes, a direct violation of state law, the Child Advocate said. Adding fuel to the fire was that an exposed, damaged sprinkler head was used by the youth to hang himself.

The state Child Advocate noted in its report that the suicide occurred almost four years after the JJC first notified the detention center superintendent that had the practice of isolating juveniles during their first 24 hours after admission had to cease.

It was also 17 months after the damaged sprinkler head in the detention center victim’s room was discovered, six months after a center employee finally reported the broken sprinkler head to the buildings and grounds department and almost a month after the state attorney general and the JJC executive director ordered an immediate end to the detention center’s practice of routine lockdowns and “splits.”
The Child Advocate did not mince words when summarizing what took place over the years at the juvenile detention center.

“The county’s persistent violation of applicable laws and JJC and attorney general directives over several years, which suggests a fundamental disregard of basic human rights, led directly to the conditions that allowed E.S. to commit suicide on May 10, 2003,” the state Child Advocate said in its report.

It should be noted that following the suicide at the juvenile center in Elizabeth, on May 15, 2003 then county manager George Devanney sent a letter to the JJC executive director pointing out that the county ordered an “immediate self-imposed cap on admissions” to the detention center and “was working expeditiously to identify and take actions to construct a new facility.”

It was not until 2005, two years later that the county began construction on the new Linden juvenile detention center that opened in 2008.