Justice

Michigan to end child physical restraints after killing at Lakeside

The Kalamazoo death was the first, though hundreds of children were injured over the past year from the physical restraint, which will be banned in state-licensed facilities for kids.

Michigan regulators say it will ban the use of physical restraints in facilities it licenses following the killing of 16-year-old Cornelius Fredericks, who was crushed on the floor by seven staff at Lakeside for Children on April 29 and died at Bronson Methodist Hospital less than two days later.

“This will be a significant policy shift and departure from long-standing practices in Michigan,” said Bob Wheaton, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services (MDHHS), which licenses child detention centers such as Lakeside. He said the ban would start “as soon as possible. We are working with experts and facilities on details.”

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There were 101 “restraint violations” in licensed child facilities in the past two years, Wheaton said. There was one person killed but numerous injuries reported, though the exact number is unclear. Wheaton said facilities self-report restraint injuries, and MDHHS is conducting a review of each facility’s reporting definitions and methodology prior to releasing final data on injuries. 

Lakeside has been operated by Dallas-based Sequel Youth & Family Services since 2007.

On June 17, MDHHS issued a “special investigation report” detailing 10 violations of Lakeside’s license and recommending that the state cancel the license. On June 22, the estate of Fredericks filed a lawsuit against Lakeside, its in-house school, and multiple Sequel companies.

The killing came in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dozens of students and nearly a dozen staff were found to have the virus after widespread testing was conducted at Lakeside by the Kalamazoo County Health Department in the aftermath of the death of Fredericks, who posthumously tested positive.

Fredericks was also killed less than a month before police in Minnesota killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes, according to the autopsy report and subsequent criminal charges, sparking ongoing protests nationwide against that type of restraint, police brutality, and institutionalized racism.

According to the MDHHS report, Fredericks was restrained on his back on the floor of the Lakeside cafeteria for “approximately 12 minutes” after throwing a sandwich and being pushed off his chair by a Lakeside staff member. At one time, there were seven adult male Lakeside staff members laying on him, during which time he stopped breathing.

The following are pertinent answers from Wheaton, on behalf of MDHHS, in an email exchange with NowKalamazoo:

Why were these types of restraints allowed in the first place, considering the rationale and data cited for ending the practice?

We acknowledge that the department missed some signs and should have done more. That’s why we are taking swift action now. This practice has been permitted in Michigan and other states, but now we believe it’s the time to change. We have a relatively new administration in place that is committed to addressing this problem.

What is the alternative?

Implementing alternatives to restraint use will require organizational, cultural, program, and practice changes. MDHHS will identify evidence-based and trauma-informed best practice alternatives and non-coercive interventions that effectively decrease youth aggression and agitation, improve organizational culture and workforce competence, and increase engagement of families. MDHHS will work with national experts to create policies, programs and performance standards that promote safety and wellbeing for children who require brief treatment in a residential setting.

The data and rationale make it seem problematic that the practice wasn’t ended sooner. Is there a broader institutional issue (perhaps pan-institutional, across all government entities that are involved in incarceration), which allowed for violence against minors?

Correct, there has been a gradual recognition across disciplines that restraint use is not therapeutic or consistent with a trauma-informed approach to healing and resiliency building.

What is the definition you are using for “physical restraint”?

There are two types of restraints, which are physical (personal) and mechanical. Here are definitions from MDHHS policy:

(g) “Mechanical restraint” means a device attached or adjacent to the minor child’s body that he or she cannot easily remove and that restricts freedom of movement or normal access to his or her body. Mechanical restraint does not include the use of a protective or adaptive device or a device primarily intended to provide anatomical support. Mechanical restraint does not include use of a mechanical device to ensure security precautions appropriate to the condition and circumstances of a minor child placed in the child caring institution as a result of an order of the family division of circuit court under section 2(a) of chapter XIIA of the probate code of 1939, 1939 PA 288, MCL 712A.2.

(h) “Personal restraint” means the application of physical force without the use of a device, for the purpose of restraining the free movement of a minor child’s body. Personal restraint does not include:

(i) The use of a protective or adaptive device.

(ii) Briefly holding a minor child without undue force in order to calm or comfort him or her.

(iii) Holding a minor child’s hand, wrist, shoulder, or arm to safely escort him or her from 1 area to another.

(iv) The use of a protective or adaptive device or a device primarily intended to provide anatomical support.

The use of restraints is a high-risk practice that can result in injury. The use of restraints in congregate care has not been empirically proven to be therapeutic. MDHHS seeks to establish policies based on the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) — being trauma-informed. We are committed to treating children in ways that promote healing trauma and creating resilience. This includes replacing policies and practices based on blame, shame, control, and punishment with those based on understanding, nurturing and healing.

Lastly, is this decision related to the larger Black Lives Matter movement, which is, in part, protesting physical restraints by authorities? Is there a deeper problem you are attempting to solve as it relates to Black people in the justice system (including but not limited to juvenile facilities like Lakeside)?

MDHHS is committed to protecting children and will not accept the unnecessary death of a young man who had his entire life ahead of him. The department shares the concerns about institutional racism and its effect on the health and safety of Michiganders. Racial disparity is a threat to public health. In our work to treat children who have experienced trauma and family separation, it is our responsibility to promote resilience and prevent and mitigate further trauma, particularly and intentionally in our service to children and families who have historically been marginalized.

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