AN EMPLOYEE at a Department of Youth Services facility in Springfield suffered life-threatening injuries after being assaulted by a juvenile housed there.
The victim, who has not been identified, is hospitalized at Baystate Medical Center.
According to the Hampden County District Attorney’s office, the incident occurred Wednesday, June 30, at a facility for delinquent juveniles on Tinkham Road. A Massachusetts State Police detective unit assigned to the Hampden District Attorney’s office is investigating. The name of the juvenile has not been released, and no charges have yet been filed.
Dave Procopio, a State Police spokesperson, confirmed the assault and said the victim “is alive but has life-threatening injuries.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Youth Services said the agency has been notified of the incident, but could not comment further because the investigation is ongoing by law enforcement.
The program is administered through a state contract by the Center for Human Development, a Springfield-based human services agency. Ben Craft, a spokesperson for CHD, said the agency is working with DYS and law enforcement to respond to the violent event. He could not comment on the specifics of what occurred.
“Our primary focus at this time is providing resources and support to the family and colleagues of the CHD employee who is the victim of the incident,” Craft said in a statement. “As with any serious adverse event, and in partnership with DYS, we are reviewing processes and operations to make sure that we are maintaining the highest-possible level of safety for our workforce.”
Rep. Michael Finn, a West Springfield Democrat who co-chairs the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, said there is no doubt his committee will look into the incident. “There will be some people answering some questions about this whole thing,” Finn said.
The assault is likely to bring renewed attention to safety conditions at Department of Youth Services facilities. DYS is the state’s juvenile justice agency, which supervises youth between ages 12 and 21 who are committed by the courts because they are awaiting trial or have committed a serious criminal offense. In 2020, there were 1,080 youth admitted to DYS facilities, with another approximately 500 held overnight after an arrest. The agency has 818 employees, according to its annual report.
Assaults on DYS staff are not unusual, though statistics do not indicate how many assaults result in life-threatening injuries. According to a Safety Task Force report issued in 2018, the number of youth-on-staff assaults each quarter between 2014 and 2017 ranged from a low of 13 to a high of 30. Jim Durkin, legislative director of AFSCME Council 93, which represents DYS workers (although not the victim in this case, who was employed by CHD), said he is aware of serious injuries, but not of any deaths of DYS workers due to on-the-job assaults.
The Safety Task Force report made several recommendations, including enhanced training for workers and supervisors, more attention to staffing numbers, and the development of worker retention strategies. (The work has a high turnover rate, with 32 percent of staff leaving within a year between 2014 and 2017, according to the report.) It recommended more evening programming for youth, better behavior management tools, and education on how to report when assaults occur.
Since 2015, the report said, DYS had been making changes to improve safety, including forming a safety committee, testing a new work schedule, enhancing recreational programming, increasing staffing, improving training, and requiring worker safety training.
Durkin said the union has been trying to address workplace safety since 2011. “It remains a dangerous place to work, and we wish we could say that assaults have stopped on staff, but they haven’t,” Durkin said.
In 2011, the union expressed concerns that the state agency was not cooperating with investigations into assaults on staff. It tried unsuccessfully to get legislation passed the following year that would require that any assault be reported to law enforcement.
In 2013, Peter Forbes was appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick as the new DYS commissioner, and he was reappointed by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2015. Under Forbes, DYS signed an agreement with the union, which has been in place since 2014, committing the department to supporting any staff who chooses to prosecute a juvenile for assaulting them. Durkin said the union has made “tremendous progress” in addressing workplace safety under Forbes, who is himself a former direct-care worker.
Durkin said that memo helps reduce assaults, even if they can never be eliminated. “If individuals in DYS custody know they’re going to be held accountable, they’re going to be prosecuted for their actions, it doesn’t take long for word like that to travel quickly,” he said.
The Department of Youth Services last came under serious public scrutiny in 2015, when several employees were arrested for physically abusing juveniles at a DYS facility in Boston. After a trial, four staffers were found guilty of assaulting the boys.