by sean i. mills Sentinel staff writer

POINT OF TROUBLE ¿ Directional sign on Taberg-Florence Road points to the entrance to the state-run Annsville Youth Center. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

TOWN OF ANNSVILLE — Responding to union claims of injuries to 18 of 33 aides at a state-run detention facility for young females, State Sen. Joseph A. Griffo is calling for better safety measures and staff training at the Taberg Residential Center.

Griffo, R-47 Rome, called the reports of injuries "appalling" and demanded immediate action from the commissioner of the state Office of Child and Family Services.

"I am outraged and demand immediate steps to address the serious situation at the OCFS Residential Facility at Taberg," Griffo wrote to Gladys Carrion.

"The appalling record of injuries suffered by staff is a clear indication that rapid steps need to be taken to stabilize the situation for the protection of remaining staff and to institute changes that will create a safe work environment for the staff."

Officials with the OCFS, however, said today that the claims of the employee union — the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) — are not entirely accurate, and that the Taberg Residential Center has received increased training and an influx of staff since a change in 2011 from an all-male facility to all-female.

"The safety of both staff and residents is a primary concern of the OCFS," said Susan Steele, assistant director of communications in Albany.

"In recognition of issues at Taberg, since November, OCFS has deployed senior managers and staff from both regional and home offices to provide facility staff with technical assistance and support."

The Taberg Residential Center is a limited-security facility at 10011 Taberg-Florence Road. It provides counseling, education and other services to girls ages 13 to 18 who have been sentenced in Family Court for various crimes. Prior to 2011, the Taberg facility was an all-male campus, but that changed due to the closing of several other facilities in 2011, OCFS officials said.

As of Monday, there were 14 female residents at the facility, Steele said. They center can bunk a maximum of 25 youths.

According to the union, 18 of the 33 Youth Division Aides, as well as the facility director, are currently out of work due to injuries suffered in attacks from the female residents. They said the injuries include two broken collarbones, a concussion, a broken ankle and a dislocate shoulder. The union said that other co-workers have had to take on double shifts to ensure that the residents receive the round-the-clock supervision, adding to the physical and emotional drain of the job.

"For too long, OCFS has shown a complete disregard for the safety of its staff," said Danny Donohue, president of the CSEA.

"We cannot afford to continue policies that compromise public safety and put youths and staff at risk. We need a commitment to provide the leadership and resources necessary to ensure the safety and well being of youths, staff and the community."

Steele said she could not confirm the accuracy of the 18 reportedly injured aides. She said there are currently 40 filled Youth Division Aide positions at the Taberg Residential Center.

Donohue said that chief among the problems is the gradual shift from a detention model to a new "Sanctuary Model" for the facility.

According to OCFS literature, the Sanctuary Model is "a cultural model rather than a treatment intervention." Employees and residents are expected to follow seven daily commitments, including nonviolence, emotional intelligence, open communication and more.

Steele said the new model is "a complete shift in philosophy," and is "a way to move away from restraints."

"Contrary to claims made by CSEA, OCFS has increased training at Taberg," Steele said.

"Also contrary to CSEA’s claims, most of the injuries identified were sustained during the course of employing restraints, not during assaults by youth."

Steele said the injuries occurred when employees tried to physically restrain the youths. She said she does not believe the facility uses actual mechanical restraints, but simply physically restrains the youths when needed.

"Clearly the juveniles in the state system have some very complex behavioral and psychological needs," Steele said. "It’s a challenging population."

One such incident occurred at the facility on Dec. 12, when state police were called after facility resident Jessica J. Williams, age 16, attacked one of the male employees. State police said Williams had been in a fight with another girl when the employee tried to break them up.

Williams is accused of attacking the employee with her fists, giving him a concussion. She was charged with third-degree assault.

"I wouldn’t call it a problem area," said State Police Captain Francis S. Coots. He said not all law enforcement calls to the facility result in charges, though "It’s certainly been physical confrontations between residents, as well as against staff."

Coots said "it’s just noticeable that we’re receiving more calls at the facility" since the change to an all-female campus. There were reports of violence when it was all-male, "but certainly not as frequently," he stated.

Neither Coots nor Steele would comment on what it is about the all-female campus that has led to more reported attacks. They also did not have the exact number of state police responses to the facility over the past year.

In his letter to Commissioner Carrion, Griffo called these injury reports the "latest black eye" for the OCFS.

Griffo said a facility in Goshen in Orange County was cited last year for an "out-of-control orgy and sex party" that was held in December 2009 with OCFS support.

"It’s time to clean house and restore order," Griffo said.

"Dedicated front-line workers at Taberg are clearly not being given the adequate protection, training or staffing needed, and the result is a series of injuries that seriously is damaging morale and forcing staff to endure dangerous working conditions."