PERTH - State Office of Children & Family Services Commissioner Gladys Carrion Tuesday personally responded to Fulton County's two state legislators' concerns about conditions at the Tryon Residential Center.
Carrion met in Albany with state Sen. Hugh T. Farley, R-Niskayuna, and state Assemblyman Marc W. Butler, R-Newport, at the State Capitol Building, hand-delivering a three-page letter to the lawmakers.
After the meeting, both Farley and Butler said they weren't satisfied with Carrion's response to the Tryon situation.
"Both Marc and I were somewhat disappointed that all her focus was on the [Tryon] residents and not on the staff," Farley said. "I think she wants to do away with these Tryon types of facilities and put them out in the community."
Butler noted the number of residents at Tryon, which has a 180-resident capacity, is down to 91 residents.
"We kind of got the impression they're [OCFS] going to downsize it," Farley said.
The legislators said Carrion didn't seem as worried about the welfare of the staff as she did about the residents.
"It continues to cause some questions in my mind," Farley said.
"We're concerned about the safety of the staff, too," Butler added.
The lawmakers also said Carrion indicated Tryon Boys Limited Secure Director Roger Rascoe is leaving his job and a new director will take over this week. She said the staff will be getting more training.
Farley and Butler said Carrion feels cameras show Tryon staff are acting "more inappropriately" with incidents against residents than at about 30 other youth detention facilities in the state.
"She was quite hard on Tryon," the senator said.
Farley and Butler had written a letter Aug. 1 to Carrion, expressing concerns based on a July 27 Leader-Herald story quoting recent former employees who said conditions at the state's Tryon campus on County Highway 107 are worsening and the juvenile residents are becoming more troublesome.
In her response, the OCFS commissioner wrote that when she was named to her position last year, she found a "system trapped in the past."
She said New York state's juvenile justice system has failed to recognize that the "vast majority" of children are suffering from mental health disorders, substance or alcohol abuse and special- education needs.
In a conference call this morning, Farley and Butler said Carrion's "essential point" was that most of the Tryon residents have mental health disorders and have to be treated as such.
"My first thought is that while I'm sympathetic, it's not less dangerous to the staff," Butler said.
Farley said he and Butler plan to meet with Civil Service Employees Association representatives today about Tryon.
"As you know, the system utilized a corrections-based model that relied on excessive use of restraints to control children suffering from post-traumatic stress, conduct or anxiety disorders; depression and developmental disorders," Carrion wrote to Farley and Butler. "As a result of this corrections-based system, children in OCFS custody are not getting better; instead, after release, 80 percent of them were getting arrested again within three years."
Carrion wrote that OCFS takes the concerns of staff "very seriously." She said she considers the staff members "agents of change" as the state transforms the juvenile justice system.
"Children aged 10 to 18 cannot be treated like adults," Carrion wrote. "The scientific research has firmly established that their brains are still developing. With proper diagnoses, these children can be treated and rehabilitated so that they can reach their full potential as adults."
Carrion said she initiated a plan to "transform" the juvenile justice system to better serve children and their families and reduce the recidivism rate, which also helps make neighborhoods safer.
She said the transformation process includes: supporting local counties' diversion programs to keep children out of the system, supporting community-based alternatives-to-incarceration programs, hiring additional mental health staff, and establishing "discrete" mental health and substance abuse units.
Carrion wrote that she also wants to hire more teachers, work collaboratively across state agencies to access their expertise and resources to improve OCFS' services and train agency personnel in "proven trauma-informed therapies."
Tryon was the scene of an incident that preceded the Nov. 18, 2006, death of 15-year-old Tryon resident Darryl Thompson of the Bronx. A Fulton County grand jury in April 2007 cleared two former Tryon youth division aides - John P. Johnson and Robert Murphy - of wrongdoing in the restraint of Thompson before his death.
"The agency has aggressively been reducing the number of restraints used on children, which are counterproductive and often result in children and staff getting hurt," Carrion wrote. "As you are both well aware, a child at Tryon Residential Center died following a restraint in November 2006. The current rate of injuries to children and staff from restraints is unacceptable."
Carrion said "many" of the OCFS employees have embraced proven methods of dealing with children, but "for some at Tryon, reform has been a challenge and they are pushing back."
"It pains me to read some of the negative comments these employees have posted on the Web site of a local Fulton County newspaper," Carrion wrote. "They've written that the children in OCFS custody are 'hateful' and 'evil' and should be restrained with pepper spray and put to work in 'chain gangs.'"
"Clearly, OCFS needs to continue to expand and enhance its intensive training program in trauma-informed therapies that are proven to work," Carrion wrote. "The agency will also reinforce dialectic behavior therapy, which helps children who are struggling to manage their emotions, provide mental health training for non-clinical staff and offer refresher courses in sanctuary trauma-informed intervention."
David Smingler, an aide for Farley, said Tuesday Carrion was asked by Farley and Butler if she could grant a long-sought interview with The Leader-Herald to respond to some of the comments the newspaper has received in recent weeks at Tryon.
Smingler said the OCFS commissioner responded she never will grant The Leader-Herald an interview and proceeded to grant interviews to two broadcast news outlets - Capital News 9 in Albany and New York 1 from New York City.
"We were kind of upset with her relationship with the [local] media," Farley said.
Michael Anich covers Fulton County and Johnstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.