DYS Revamps Record Keeping At Ala. Youth Centers


By (AP) MONTGOMERY 

When the Alabama Department of Youth Services began the switch from paper to computerized records, officials noticed a troubling pattern: Some private contractors that handle juvenile offenders were using restraints too frequently and the employees involved were usually recent hires.

The private facilities had always been required to submit reports on the use of restraints, such as handcuffs, plastic wrist ties or bear-hugs, to physically hold a youth. But when the reports were viewed under the new system, the problem “jumped out at us,” DYS administrator Anita Boswell said.

The department is in its first year of switching from paper to mostly electronic record keeping. Now, contractors enter data into spreadsheets instead of just filling out incident reports to turn in to DYS and tuck away into the affected child’s file.

“It really did open our eyes and kind of red-flagged those areas like the use of physical restraints or mechanical restraints,” Boswell said in a recent interview. “A lot of times that’s occurring but you’re not really focusing on that even though you’re getting the critical incident reports. You get the reports but you don’t really capture the numbers and the numbers are what’s relevant.”

After noticing the pattern, DYS staff members talked with the contractors, who offered more training and began pairing new employees with seasoned ones. The experienced workers could demonstrate that although restraints might be the fastest way to defuse a situation, there are usually better ways to respond.

Advocates for juveniles praised the change and said Tuesday that it’s been a long time coming.

“Isn’t that wonderful?” said Wendy Crew, who serves on the board of the Children First Foundation. “Better record keeping is something that we have been encouraging for several years and we are delighted that DYS has recognized the importance of this.”

VOICES for Alabama’s Children director Linda Tilly said the electronic record keeping is an example of improvements DYS has made in recent years with the help of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“They’re doing a lot of things more effectively and efficiently,” she said.

DYS regional coordinator Owen Duke, who put together much of the technical support, said the new system will eventually yield substantial savings for the department.

“We’re trying to work smarter not harder and the facilities are eating it up,” he said, adding that contractors themselves are using the tracking to identify problems early on.

For example, if a usually cooperative student suddenly begins acting out more, the tracking could alert staff about a contributing change in the student’s medication.

“Those are the kinds of things they see but not on paper,” Duke said. “Now you’re getting a report where it pokes you in the nose and says, ‘Hey, take a look at me.'”

The DYS has six state-run facilities and 12 others are operated by private contractors. The department is caring for 631 youths, with 263 of them housed in private programs.

Bill Marshall, home coordinator for Alabama Youth Home in Wetumpka, said the reporting system has helped staff monitor how problems are dealt with.

“It helps you keep track so every time you turn around you’re not just sending kids to the time out room just for anything,” he said in his office during a visit from site coordinator Richard Engel.

“One of the things DYS is trying to do is show accountability of staff and students from start to finish,” Engel said.

The system isn’t totally electronic yet. Home staff fill out a variety of forms. The main one is a grid with 39 fields including the number of kids who were pregnant, expelled, had court dates, or were discharged that month.

Some fields such as escapes, doctor visits, emergency room trips and the use of restraints and time-out rooms require coordinators to put in more detailed information.

The forms are then turned in to DYS where staff put the information into spreadsheets.

Duke said eventually the state and contractors will have a shared site where they can put their information directly into spreadsheets for their facility.

Information from the state-run programs had already been readily available because of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which requires government reporting from each state.

The Associated Press sought records from Alabama DYS and private homes in 2008 as part of a national project that found a lack of oversight and standards makes it hard to determine how many youngsters have been assaulted or neglected while in youth centers around the country.

But since information from private facilities wasn’t tracked at the time, each of the 26 contractors had to be contacted individually and only 15 responded.

Engel said it’s a new chapter for the department and it’s come a long way from the days when data was often jotted down on cards or Post-it notes.

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