Members of the Board of Juvenile Affairs voted unanimously Wednesday to stop using pepper spray on children in the care of the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs.
Also known as OC spray for its active ingredient, oleoresin capsicum, the spray causes a burning sensation on the skin and burning, tearing and swelling of the eyes and can be incapacitating. OC spray has been used 52 times on 62 children in state juvenile affairs facilities over the past five years, according to a department spokeswoman. “It has no place in our facilities," Board Chairman Scott Williams said Wednesday during the board's monthly meeting.
"Just even having this as a part of what we do, I think it sends the wrong message, and it's not going to help us moving forward. I really don't want to talk about OC spray, like really, ever again as long as I'm a part of this board. I'm sick of talking about it.”
The state Office of Juvenile Affairs announced plans last year to phase out the use of OC spray, following an internal study of its implementation. The Wednesday decision means the department will stop using the spray by June 1.
"Our kids come into our facilities, without exception, from very traumatic lives," said Terry Smith, deputy director of resident placement and support, who presented the department's report to the board.
"They've been traumatized by their parents, by their communities and a variety of things. They come to us, and what they need in my opinion is a home life that they can trust and begin to develop relationships. The worst thing that we can do is use force upon these kids, and absolutely the worst thing we can do, in my opinion, is spray these kids.”
Smith said after reviewing surveillance video showing staff using the spray, he concluded it was not being used to stop riots or large scale outbursts, but rather on an individual basis.
After a 2011 riot at the Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center in Tecumseh, board members serving at that time approved the use of the spray. Smith said in that case, the riot got out of hand because doors were left unlocked, allowing children to leave their rooms and group together. No riots have occurred in an OJA facility since 2011.
“Riots do not happen as a result of violent juveniles," Smith said. "Riots happen because of poor management."
“You go through all the videos and we're not stopping any riots," said board member Stephen Grissom, who was the agency's head psychiatrist at the time the OC spray policy was approved.
"I'm sorry, but if you've got an individual, work with the kid. That's what we do.” Grissom said board members and agency leaders in 2012 were approaching their duties from a law enforcement perspective, which he viewed as counterproductive.“That's what law enforcement looks for," he said. "Short term interaction. Lock them up. Custody and control." "Meanwhile, those of us who've been (at OJA) forever know that you don't get anywhere with a kid if you don't establish a relationship. You don't establish a relationship through intimidation, fear, harm."
In a written statement read during the meeting, board member Donnie Nero, who was not in attendance, cautioned that some juvenile affairs staff members have expressed a desire to continue using OC spray, citing the physical realities of their work.
“Let's not overlook the charge given to those placed in the day-to-day operation of making these processes," Nero wrote. "OC spray may not be the answer, but what alternatives will we immediately provide to staff in our care?”
Executive Director Steve Buck said the agency is sending its two certified officers to crisis intervention training, which teaches officers how to deescalate situations involving mental illness or distress. He said law enforcement agencies across the country are using the training at an increasing rate.
Buck said those officers soon will begin training staffers on new techniques they hope will be an alternative to use-of-force policies such as OC spray. Buck, whose department has had a drop in state funding due to state budgetary shortfalls in recent years, said he is hopeful the department's mentality about how to handle children in its care will continue to evolve.
- Written by Mike Dempsey
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