Maryland’s Office of the Public Defender is calling on the state to test all children in custody of the Department of Juvenile Services for COVID-19 after a private facility in Carroll County reported dozens of positive cases on Monday.
Silver Oak Academy, a privately-run residential treatment program that houses children in Department of Juvenile Services custody, confirmed on Monday that 26 youths on the 60-bed campus and 15 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19.
Most of the COVID-positive patients are asymptomatic, according to a statement from the facility.
Children who tested negative have been moved to off-campus quarantine sites and the remaining 26 students will stay at the facility to complete a medical isolation period, according to the academy statement.
The outbreak was confirmed after universal testing took place at the facility last week, following the positive test of a staff member. There are nearly 60 employees at the academy.
After confirmation of the outbreak, Deborah St. Jean, chief of the Juvenile Protection Division at the Office of the Public Defender, wrote a letter to Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed on Monday calling for universal testing.
“The constant flow of both staff and youth in and out of these facilities — where large numbers of children are housed in close proximity — means that a powerful virus like COVID-19 can take over quickly and easily,” she said in a statement. “To protect our clients, DJS staff, private facility staff, and the communities where these facilities are located, the Office of the Public Defender is requesting that DJS proactively test for COVID-19 all youth housed in DJS detention facilities and all youth committed to DJS and placed in any public or private facility within the state of Maryland or out-of-state.”
While Silver Oak is the only youth detention facility in the state to conduct widespread testing, according to the public defender, it is not unique in being vulnerable to COVID-19.
In DJS-owned facilities, there have been 23 reported positive COVID-19 cases, including 18 staff members and five youths. Eight of the staff members have recovered, as well as all of the youths, according to the department.
Among private providers housing youth for the Department of Juvenile Services, 12 facilities have reported positive cases. Twenty-two young people in the state’s care ― 18 of them at Silver Oak ― have tested positive, with three reported recoveries. At the same facilities, 89 other children have tested positive, with 30 reported recoveries, according to the department.
The department currently tests youth who display COVID-19 symptoms, while isolating others who may have been exposed but are asymptomatic in conditions identical to solitary confinement, according to the Office of the Public Defender.
If the department does not implement widespread testing, tests should at least be provided to youths referred to medical isolation, St. Jean wrote.
“The alternative — telling a child that they have been exposed to a deadly and terrifying pandemic that is killing people across the globe and then locking them alone in cells for 23 hours a day — is cruel and does little to protect anyone,” she wrote.