The number of assaults committed by teenagers at Hawaii's Youth Detention Center in Kapolei tripled between 2010 and 2013, and officials blame the high number of mentally ill kids behind bars as one reason for the spike in beatings.
Roughly 60 percent of the teenage boys and girls who arrive at the detention facility in Kapolei awaiting trial or treatment are mentally ill, officials said.
The number of "substantiated" resident-on-resident assaults nearly doubled from 28 to 45 between 2011 and 2012. Assaults then peaked in 2013, with 72. So far this fiscal year that ends June 30, assaults have decreased to 24.
"I think, just one assault, in itself, is obviously a concern," said state Judiciary spokeswoman Tammy Mori. "We need to bring that number down, whether it's one or if its 48. I think we've seen the numbers fluctuate through the years."
But even with 24 assaults this year, the number is still troubling because it's happening in a modern, four-year old facility that's far from its 60-bed capacity.
As of Tuesday, there were just 34 boys and girls kids in custody there, and that number can fall to as few as five on occasion, officials said.
Rockne Maunupau, the facility superintendent, said even the decreased number of assaults this year is "not an acceptable level of assaults."
He said there were some really troubled kids at the facility when assaults spiked in 2013, with many mentally ill, assaultive teens that year.
"We had one child who was responsible for close to 15 fights," Maunupau said.
"I've been working in this, what should I say, chaos, for over eight years now, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better," said Hailama Kaikaina, a youth detention worker and former union shop steward.
Kaikaina was one of three juvenile detention workers who came forward to complain to Hawaii News Now about problems at the facility.
They said mentally ill kids are sometimes held in the juvenile version of solitary confinement for lengthy periods.
"I've seen detainees that have been there recently upwards of a month, a month and a half, and they haven't assaulted anybody," said Scott Northup, a juvenile detention worker who's been at the facility for more than three years. "Some of them have mental illness. How are we helping them by locking them up in an eight by five cell for 23 hours a day with no help?"
Fellow employee John Taylor, who's been working with youth there for nearly three years, said, "If we're really trying to be a therapeudic facility how are we providing therapy to them? We're not."
"The Kapolei detention facility was not designed and it's not supposed to house that type of population," said Mori, the spokeswoman for the Judiciary which oversees the facility. "We do the best with the resources we can."
A full-time clinical social worker assigned to the facility works with the mentally ill during regular business hours and a psychiatrist visits there two to three times a week for medication management, Mori said.
Judiciary officials said there are very few residential treatment beds for mentally ill teens at Queens Medical Center and Kahi Mohala, so they sometimes wait months for an opening.
"There are some systemic issues here, including the lack of mental health facilities, substance abuse treatment facilities in our state," Mori said.
Senior Family Court Judge R. Mark Browning, who is also deputy chief judge of the first circuit, said, "We need to come up with some sort of mental health facility that will help to heal our kids. Jail is not the alternative for mental health."
Browning said one alternative is for the state Health Department, Judiciary and perhaps private or nonprofit groups to collaborate and build a mental facility for youths. That's an effort that could take years to come to fruition.
Even though about 80 percent of the kids incarcerated at Kapolei have some kind of drug problem, the facility has not conducted random drug tests on its employees for at least three years, even though the union contract allows it.
"We are taking steps to make that happen, because it is a necessary thing to ensure the safety of the kids and the employees here," Mori said.
Judiciary officials at first claimed the union contract didn't allow random drug testing, which they later admitted was not correct. Maunupau also said he lacked the budget to carry out drug testing.
In 2013, the facility went $266,628 over its $648,125 budget for expenses such as gas, water, electricity and supplies. The facility reported a $129,683 surplus in personnel expenses, out of $4,119,032 budgeted for salaries and overtime.
Northup, one of the juvenile detention workers, said his supervisor smoked marijuana at work and he complained to no avail.
"I got coworkers or other people coming in, you know they're under the influence of something. And you'll try to write it up to get it questioned, or to see what's going to happen. Nothing gets done. It gets swept under the rug," Northup said.
Northup said other employees come to work high with no consequences.
The lack of drug testing alarmed Senate Judiciary Chairman Clayton Hee.
"You cannot have workers that may be on drugs trying to treat youngsters who have been psychotic drug abusers or mental illness residents," Hee said.
Maunupau, the facility superintendent, told Hawaii News Now no one notified him about Northrup's complaint and if he had known about it, he would have taken action.
He said he fired one employee recently for using cocaine on the job, but the woman successfully appealed her firing and was reinstated.
The three employees, along with five others who did not want their identities made public, also complained that the facility lacks 24-hour nursing care. Facility managers confirmed nurses are on duty from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, but there is no nurse to deal with medical emergencies, administer medications and take care of residents who sometimes arrive high or in crisis late at night or early in the morning.
"We don't even have a 24-hour nurse. How safe is that for everybody?" Northup, who's been out of work since a mentally ill boy jumped him May 1.
Judiciary officials said they want 24-7 nursing care but don't have the funding. They requested money from the legislature to hire a nursing manager, which would help increase nursing coverage at the facility, but lawmakers turned down that request this year, officials said.
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