The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a federal judge’s ruling that led to the dismissal of a class-action lawsuit against the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center Commission.
The case drew national headlines and sparked a state investigation after an advocacy group claimed staff abused undocumented children. The detention center in Verona houses juveniles charged with crimes in the Valley, including Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, as well as youth in the country illegally.
The appellate court issued its opinion Tuesday to send it back to the U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg for further proceedings. The judges voted 2 to 1.
“The district court granted summary judgement to the commission after finding that it provides adequate care by offering access to counseling and medication,” the opinion stated. “But the district court incorrectly applied a standard of deliberate indifference when it should have determined when the commission substantially departed from accepted standards of professional judgement.”
In the dissenting opinion, a judge wrote that a court’s job isn’t to determine proper care.
“We judges should stick to what we are good at: applying precedent, interpreting statutes and exercising traditional equitable powers,” the dissenting opinion stated. “Today’s case features an invitation to try our hand at institutional governance and do something we are utterly unqualified to do — determine what constitutes acceptable mental health care. Judges are not psychiatrists. Mental health, while highly desirable for all, is a complex and evolving field.”
Judge Elizabeth Dillon dismissed the case in July 2019.
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs filed the lawsuit in October 2017 on behalf of a plaintiff identified as John Doe, then a 17-year-old who crossed the border illegally from Mexico in August 2015.
Calls to attorneys in the case weren’t returned.
In January 2018, the organization amended the complaint, adding John Doe 2 and John Doe 3 to the lawsuit. Both plaintiffs entered the country illegally, according to the lawsuit.
The suit claimed children were abused by center staff. The abuse allegedly included being hit and strapped to a chair.
“[A] child was punched by SVJC staff in the chair while his hands were tied behind his back, leaving a bruise,” the lawsuit stated. “He struggled to break free, and staff members pushed him to the ground, causing him to lose consciousness.”
Juvenile center officials, including Executive Director Timothy J. Smith, denied the allegations and said an internal review proved the claims to be false.
The lawsuit didn’t seek money, but requested a court order for the facility to make improvements.
On June 27, 2018, Dillon granted the case class-action status.
The ruling opened the lawsuit to any “Latino unaccompanied alien children ... who are currently detained or will be detained in the future at Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center who either: have been, are, or will be subject to the disciplinary policies and practices used by SVJC staff or have needed, currently need or will in the future need care and treatment for mental health problems while detained at SVJC.”
That same month, according to court documents, Doe informed attorneys that he no longer wanted to pursue the lawsuit.
In a July 2018 filing, attorneys said Doe 2 and Doe 3 were transferred from the Verona detention center to their home countries in May. However, the attorneys added a John Doe 4 to the case, claiming his allegations “mirror” those of the former plaintiffs.
In December, Dillon ruled that John Doe 4 wasn’t a viable plaintiff but gave attorneys time to find a “John Doe 5.” However, a John Doe 5 wasn’t found. The case was dismissed Tuesday.
In June 2018, The Associated Press reported on the lawsuit, prompting outcry from several state and federal lawmakers. Gov. Ralph Northam called for an investigation into the center, which found no wrongdoing in an August report.
Tuesday’s opinion outlined John Doe 4’s life.
The opinion stated that Doe 4 was born in 2001 in Honduras and was raised by his grandparents in San Pedro Sula.
“As early as age seven or eight, Doe 4 saw gang members kill his friends, beating them with rocks or hacking them apart with machetes,” the opinion stated.
Later, as a child, he was attacked with a machete.
“Fearing for his life, he fled with a friend to the United States,” the opinion stated. “They journeyed through Guatemala and Mexico for a year, continuing to experience violence along the way. Arriving in Mexico, Doe 4 was robbed, beaten and shot in the foot, and he became separated from his friend when they fled their assailants”
The opinion stated that after being released from a hospital, he went to an immigration home where he, and two others, continued to the United States.
U.S. Customs and Border protection officers captured him, brought him to Southwest Key Estrella in Arizona and transferred him to SVJC in December 2017.
At the center, the opinion stated, Doe 4 was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The opinion stated that he was involved in several disciplinary incidents, including those for self-harm. At one point, he refused to eat his dinner and was sent to his room but refused to go, the opinion stated.
“Eventually, two staff physically grabbed Doe 4 in a full-nelson hold and dragged him to his room as he kicked and struggled,” the report stated. “While he was isolated, Doe 4 tied a shirt around his neck, causing staff to intervene and place him in a suicide blanket.”
In another incident listed in the opinion, Doe 4 wouldn’t trim his nails.
“Doe 4 refused and argued with staff for several minutes before eventually punching a staff member,” the opinion stated. “Staff then grappled Doe 4 in a two-person full-nelson hold before dropping him to the ground and placing him in handcuffs.”
The opinion stated that other children suffered from mental health issues. Between June 2015 and May 2018, the opinion stated, at least 45 children “intentionally hurt themselves or attempted suicide” at the center.
Former employee Anna Wykes, according to the opinion, said her co-workers “reacted with indifference when children harmed themselves. She testified that when shift supervisors learned of a child self-harming, they responded with comments like, ‘let them cut themselves’ and ‘let them go bleed out.’”