'These kids are not safe. Our staff is not safe' -- Wayne County Executive Warren Evans declares public health emergency at juvenile jail

Wayne County Chief Executive Officer Warren Evans speaks during the 2024 NFL Draft Celebration at Campus Martius Park in Detroit on April 14, 2022.
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Wayne County Executive Warren Evans on Tuesday night used part of his State of the County speech to declare a public health state of emergency at the overcrowded and understaffed juvenile jail.

The order, which will be issued under the county's health officer, will include setting up an incident command center that reports to Evans and will expedite adding staff and providing therapeutic services, Evans said in the hourlong speech at the Ford Performing Arts Center in Dearborn.

“The situation has become untenable for nearly 140 youths that are currently residing there. Extraordinary action has become necessary," Evans told the crowd.

Evans added that the most important step still is for the state to address the overall shortage of residential placement facilities in Michigan.

He said as many as 65 youths in the Wayne County Juvenile Detention Facility have already been sentenced by judges and should have been placed in outside residential facilities for treatment. But there is a statewide shortage of such facilities, resulting in some youths waiting more than 100 days, he said.

A news release distributed Tuesday night from the county said that in 2021, the average number of juveniles in the facility was 68. There were 137 in the facility Tuesday. The jail can comfortably handle just 80 juveniles, county officials have said.

"Concurrently, the average stay has ballooned from 21 days to 127 days," the release said. "One child languished in the facility for over 800 days awaiting a placement. The overcrowding has created a staffing crisis in the facility."

More:Problems we found at the Wayne County juvenile jail

In his speech, Evans encouraged the state to act.

“As our partnership with the state progresses, our hope is that we'll be able to rely on them to do their part and get our children out of our facility and into the long-term placements they deserve," Evans said.

"Please keep in mind that these kids are living and breathing right now, which is why we are taking action right now."

Evans' announcement came the same day a state Senate subcommittee called a special hearing for Wednesday afternoon on the problems at the juvenile jail. Wayne County Deputy County Executive Assad Turfe is expected to attend, among others.

State officials have said they are working to expand facilities, including adding beds at two state-operated facilities in northern Michigan. The state also is giving $3 million in "startup funds" to Spectrum Human Services to open 40 additional beds in the Detroit-enclave of Highland Park.

Last week, as the Detroit Free Press first reported, a 12-year-old boy was allegedly sexually assaulted by other youths at the facility, an act of violence called "extremely rare" by a county spokesperson. Police are investigating.

Evans acknowledged the dangerous conditions after the speech Tuesday night telling reporters the health emergency was warranted because "we feel like these kids are not safe. Our staff is not safe."

He said his decision to move juveniles to the a vacant adult jail in October, the William Dickerson Detention Facility in Hamtramck, and an effort to bring more staff on through a contract company hasn’t been enough to improve conditions.

The attack on the boy came amid other dangerous conditions at the facility. An ongoing Free Press investigation since last year has found that juveniles have been locked in rooms for long periods of time and were denied daily showers, recreation, medication and schooling.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, who recently took over as director of the county Department of Health, Human & Veterans Services, said Tuesday night as the county's health officer he also authorized the emergency declaration. He said it would allow him to renegotiate contracts to address the hiring crisis at the jail, including potentially raising the pay rate for workers. He said he is also trying to bring in more therapeutic services for youths by asking the state to alter some Medicaid rules.

Since last spring, the state has given the facility permission to bend rules on locking down juveniles and the ratio of staffing to residents.

More:In heated letters to Whitmer, Wayne County blames state 'failure' for juvenile jail crisis

More:Top exec at juvenile jail fired, says he doesn't understand why

County officials have said they believe some safety issues, such as youths being able to disable cell door locks and wander freely, will improve when the county moves into the new Criminal Justice Complex under construction. Dan Gilbert's Rock Ventures missed a deadline last week toward finishing that project, two Wayne County commissioners told the Free Press.

Evans said during the speech that the project will be "finished this year" but didn't mention a specific move-in date.

"The environment at the new (Criminal Justice Complex) will be safer and more empowering for the adults in our jail and the youth in our juvenile detention facility," Evans said.

Evans also on Tuesday night used his State of the County speech to tout successes in public health, job training and infrastructure improvements.

He touted his recent hire of El-Sayed, saying he will "help me realize my vision for a healthier, more equitable Wayne County." In 2018, El-Sayed ran an unsuccessful bid for governor.

Evans said the county is going to be launching innovative new public health programs with $60 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. The variety of projects includes partnering with Wayne State University to offer free Narcan at a vending machine in the lobby of the Wayne County Jail for inmates who are being released to reduce overdoses. And to tackle air pollution and childhood asthma, the county plans to install 100 air monitors across the county and distribute 500 mobile air monitors that clip on backpacks for children with asthma.

"We can use that data to take immediate action," Evans said. "We’ll notify parents when air quality is poor, helping them protect their children so they don’t wind up in the emergency room."

He also cited county and other local officials' efforts to successfully pressure the Environmental Protection Agency to halt shipments of toxic waste from the site of a recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, to Wayne County.

"We held a press conference, and guess what happened next?," Evans said. "They stopped sending that junk to Wayne County."

Evans cited new hiring partnerships to fill county jobs with Wayne County Community College District, as well as $10 million in new federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) spending toward heavy maintenance on the North Branch of Ecorse Creek to improve drainage infrastructure and reduce flooding. Evans also celebrated with the county's improved financial outlook, including a $233 million fund balance.

Free Press staff writer JC Reindl contributed to this report.

Contact Christine MacDonald: cmacdonald@freepress.com or 313-418-2149. Follow her on Twitter: @cmacfreep.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Warren Evans declares public health emergency at juvenile jail