Erie County Youth Detention employees placed leg irons on an 8-year-old boy and left him shackled while he was waiting in Family Court to appear before a judge in February. That prompted a wave of objections by education officials and county leaders who later learned of the shackling.
The child was a third-grader in Buffalo Public Schools.
"It was unbelievable that an 8-year-old should be shackled," said School Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold.
School district officials raised concerns about the shackling in mid-March, but it wasn't until this month that the policy on the use of restraints in Family Court was formally relaxed for children under 13. District officials still have lingering concerns about how children are being transported to and from court.
Nevergold first heard from a community member who didn't know the child but happened to see him in Family Court with cuffs around both ankles. That prompted a district investigation.
"It was very painful to me," Nevergold said.
She said she has grandchildren that age.
"I got rather emotional about it," she said.
Before August, all juvenile delinquents in Family Court had their ankles shackled regardless of age or the nature of their offense, according to Erie County Social Services officials. That practice is legal and common across the state, said Commissioner Marie Cannon.
In New York State, children who commit crimes can be considered juvenile delinquents as young as age 7.
But it's rare for any child under the age of 12 to be considered a criminal offender, Cannon said.
"This is an anomaly for us," Cannon said. "We’re shocked to see an 8-year-old in custody to begin with."
In the past three years, more than 30 states have changed their laws regarding the blanket use of restraints on children appearing in court, based on recommendations in 2015 from both the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the American Bar Association. Both organizations recommend against the automatic use of hardware restraints on children in court unless the child poses a demonstrated safety risk to himself or herself or to others.
"Young people are less likely to re-offend if they perceive that the juvenile justice system has treated them fairly," said Family Court Judge Lisa Bloch Rodwin, who serves on the Bar Association's Family Court Advisory Rules Committee.
But New York State has not changed its law, despite proposals introduced in the State Legislature over the past several years.
Judges and youth detention officials point out there are times when leg restraints are necessary because adolescents and teens can be aggressive and prone to violent outbursts.
But others say putting leg irons on children without regard to the nature of their crime or any assessment of their threat to safety is unnecessarily traumatizing and a sure way to promote a pipeline to prison at a young age.
"You should have a justifiable reason to restrain a child," said Will Keresztes, the city school district's chief of intergovernmental affairs. "You're traumatizing them, you're humiliating them, and above all, you’re violating the presumption of innocence."
Raising the issue
Keresztes began pursuing the matter as soon as he heard about the 8-year-old child, he said. The child was facing his first proceeding in Family Court, based on the the district's understanding, he said.
"We were all shocked, and when we had our first conversations about it, I immediately walked over to the Family Court building," he said. "The county staff was really responsive, and they walked me through the process."
He then followed up with the Erie County Attorney's Office, expressing "grave concerns."
The Attorney's Office initially responded by saying it would not answer the district's questions regarding juvenile restraint practices because of privacy rules and because it couldn't offer legal interpretation to outside entities. Then it replied to Keresztes' follow-up request for answers to yes/no questions, along with the explanation that staff at the Youth Detention Center transport all juvenile delinquents in a matter considered appropriate by the state.
In June, Cannon met with Keresztes and followed up with a letter saying that Social Services could not find peer agencies outside the area with different policies. She said Erie County's existing policy would not change. Keresztes, however, said he's aware of other counties where child restraints are used with greater discretion and suggested the county gain input from its own Youth Detention staff for suggestions.
"I think just looking at the practices to neighboring counties – the automatic shackling of very young children who have not had a court proceeding completed – they’re not doing this across Western New York," he said.
The School Board passed a resolution against the practice of indiscriminate shackling of minor children in Family Court and forwarded it to elected officials, including all Erie County legislators and Common Council members. Legislature Majority Leader April Baskin, D-Buffalo, asked Legislature staff to follow up.
"The family court system is supposed to be rehabilitative," Baskin said. "We can’t discriminate against young people by shackling them. It basically undermines a faith in the court system that is supposed to help them."
Later, the county changed its policy on transporting juvenile delinquents inside the Family Court building. County Executive Mark Poloncarz demanded a policy change, said county spokesman Peter Anderson.
The new policy adopted by the county's Youth Services Division states that no child under the age of 13 will be leg-cuffed in the Family Court building. Children in Family Court have never been routinely handcuffed. To protect child and staff safety, young children moving through the court building will be accompanied by two youth detention staffers instead of one.
Cannon said her department had studied the matter for some time and was concerned about the impact on staffing. Administrators also wanted to take into account new raise-the-age requirements that will change the maximum age of juveniles in Family Court from 15 to 16.
But since so few children under the age of 13 are considered juvenile delinquents, she said the staffing impact won't be great. The cutoff was also set at age 13 because that's when children become more physically mature.
"A child under 13 we felt that we could safely transport with the additional staff," she said. "And we hope to God we don’t see children as young in the system."
Both Baskin and Keresztes praised the new policy.
Youth Detention personnel transport the vast majority of juvenile delinquents in Family Court.
"It’s an important first step," Keresztes said, "but there’s more work to be done around this issue."
What the rules require and what actually happens seems to be different when it comes to moving children in Family Court. Children are supposed to wear hardware restraints, according to policy, when they are taken to and through court, police and Social Social administrators said.
But Family Court judges and attorneys for children say it is uncommon to see children wearing any restraints when they are escorted into a courtroom area by Youth Detention personnel.
Buffalo Police Department Capt. Jeff Rinaldo said that the department's policy is to handcuff juvenile delinquents taken to Family Court if they are charged with what would be considered a serious crime, but he knows many officers don't.
Keresztes said Buffalo police officials who oversee school officers told him that children are not restrained unless there's justification.
He also asked the Sheriff's Office about its policy on transporting juvenile delinquents, but the department did not respond.
The Sheriff's Office responded to a News inquiry by saying leg restraints are not used on children, but it did not respond to a question about handcuffs.
"I’m not judging that," Keresztes said. "I just don’t know what the answer is."
Need for restraints
There are times when youth need to wear restraints. Even those who support the new policy say it's understood that there are times when, to protect the child, the staff or others in the courthouse, a child cannot walk freely through Family Court.
Family Court judges can recount times when youth have gouged courtroom walls, kicked over tables and even thrown a chair. Adolescents and teenagers are often less aware or concerned about consequences of their behavior than adults in the same situation, they said.
The concern that children might have a violent outburst is reflected in the fact that the protective glass tops on the courtroom tables where children are assigned to sit with their lawyers have all been removed. And nothing is hung on the walls for fear they could be thrown.
Paul Kubala, the county's deputy commissioner for youth services, said children in Family Court are most dangerous when a judge informs them that they aren't going home but are instead going to a secured treatment center or back to the Youth Detention Center. Many don't expect that and become upset, he said.
Social Services administrators said that if a county staffer has to physically restrain a child, that places the child's safety at risk.
Recommended best practices state that while children generally should not be restrained in court, restraints may be necessary if the child is a demonstrated flight risk, when personnel have valid concern for physical injury, or if a child has exhibited physically disruptive courtroom behavior, Rodwin said.
The nature of the child's crime and his or her behavior and demeanor toward adults are also factors, according to police.
Ultimately, it's a matter of discretion. And those opposed to the indiscriminate shackling of children say discretion in the handling of youth needs to be a much bigger priority.
"This is a justice issue for everybody," Keresztes said.