KUOW’s Amy Radil interviewed Zero Youth Detention Director Derrick Wheeler-Smith last week about our work to eliminate the use of secure detention for young people in King County – check out the story here. With the opening of the new Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) on the horizon, much of the discussion focused on the new juvenile court and juvenile detention facility.
Expanding on this story, we wanted to provide additional thoughts from Wheeler-Smith on how his Zero Youth Detention work intersects with the new facility.
Q: If the goal is Zero Youth Detention, why is a new facility being built?
Wheeler-Smith: We know that any time spent in detention can be traumatic to youth and their families, and that there are methods other than detention to hold youth accountable and keep community safe. Our many legal system and community partners dedicated to Zero Youth Detention are working hard on further ramping up community programming and restorative justice alternatives. That said, at this point, we don’t currently have alternatives that fit the needs of every young person who’s entered the system. When a young person is required by law to be detained, it’s necessary to have a physical environment where the needs of youth and their families can be met in developmentally appropriate ways.
Q: The construction of the new facility has been controversial. As the opening nears, what are your thoughts?
Wheeler-Smith: I use an analogy of a rose bush in thinking about the building. Many people will see the beauty of the building and the improvements it provides over the current Youth Services Center; at the same time, we can see the thorns and pain this new building represents to so many in our community, particularly black and brown families who have been disproportionately impacted by the use of secure detention.
While we’re applauding the benefits of the building and the success the County has already achieved in reducing the use of secure detention for young people, I also see the CFJC’s opening as a moment to re-dedicate ourselves to the hard work of reaching zero youth detention and creating a King County where all young people can thrive.
Q: Are there benefits you see from the new building?
Wheeler-Smith: The current Youth Services Center is in need of major repairs. Brown water runs from the facility’s faucets. Space for on-site youth and family resources is extremely limited. Because there are few private meeting spaces, families often have to hold sensitive conversations with attorneys and social workers in the overcrowded waiting room. Dealing with a legal case can be one of the scariest and most traumatic experiences in many people’s lives – families deserve an environment that treats them with privacy and dignity.
The new CFJC building will provide people attending Court business, and youth held in secure detention, a healthier and more welcoming environment than the current building, and I see that as a good thing. The CFJC is intentionally designed to allow the County to better support the entire family and provide trauma-informed care. Unlike the current building, it will have free childcare for families attending court, a resource center where community programs can connect with families on-site, and private meeting spaces for sensitive conversations. In Juvenile Detention, there will be a Spiritual Center dedicated to spiritual practice, counseling, and mentorship, and improved programming space.