Utah lets kids in detention centers video chat with parents, offers phones to those who need them

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Juvenile Justice Services holds a press conference at Decker Lake Youth Center in West Valley City on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, to discuss its success after juvenile justice reforms were passed in 2017. A walking tour provided a glimpse into one of the resident rooms which are locked at night.

Like many jails and detention centers, Utah’s Juvenile Justice Services (JJS) banned visitors about six weeks ago, as they tried to keep the rapidly spreading coronavirus from entering its walls.

It was an easy transition for some of Utah’s adult jails. Video visitation have been a part of its system for years, and some offered free phone calls so inmates could keep in contact with family members.

But for those youths who were in trouble with the law, being able to connect with their parents through a video chat hadn’t been possible — but the coronavirus has changed that.

JJS officials worked to get video systems ready, and used that as a replacement for the in-person visits they halted in mid-March. It’s also kept kids connected to schooling and to their therapists.

But Director Brett Peterson said they started to notice a problem: Not everyone’s parents or family members had a smartphone or a way to make a video call.

“These are typically the most underserved families in really challenging circumstances,” Peterson said, citing refugee families as an example.

For years, JJS had been giving smartphones to youths who are transitioning out of their facilities back into their homes. Now, in the age of the coronavirus, officials have started giving those phones to families who don’t have another way to keep in contact.

Peterson said the video chats have been successful — sometimes even more so than their previous in-person visitation system.

“Young people have gained and reestablished great connections with their family,” he said. “Maybe they couldn’t have in-person visits historically and we didn’t have video capabilities.”

Peterson said his staff also has been on-hand to help family members troubleshoot basic tech issues, like how to log-on and use video apps. He noted one boy he talked to recently said he couldn’t chat with his mom because she didn’t have an email address to use to create an account. Case workers helped her set one up.

“It’s just the basics,” he said.

He said JJS officials will keep video visitation for in-custody kids even as things go back to normal and parents can start visiting in person again.

“I’ve already made that decision,” he said. “We’ll make sure for our youth, that this remains as part of an arrow in their quiver in how they stay connected. We’ll allow in-person visits when possible, but also allowing video connections.”

In the JJS facilities, that means more iPads and tablets have been purchased, and Peterson said they’ve made it a priority to make sure they’re giving the youths enough time to connect with family.

There hasn’t been any case of COVID-19 in Utah juvenile facilities as of Wednesday, but Peterson noted that if they do need to quarantine a child who is ill or has been exposed, they’ve got iPads and Nintendo Switches ready for them.

For now, he said they’re using those gaming systems as incentives for kids in their care that are already adjusting to changes and limitations in recent weeks.