Home where youth worker was killed saw recent rise in assaults
Six attacks on staff recorded in six months
THE SPRINGFIELD HOME for court-involved juveniles where youth worker James Hillman was fatally assaulted on June 30 was no stranger to violent altercations – and in fact, the number of assaults by youth in the home had risen in the six months leading up to his death.
Hillman died several weeks after he was allegedly attacked by David Burgos, a teenager living in the secure residential treatment facility where Hillman worked. The home on Tinkham Road is run by the Center for Human Development and overseen by the state Department of Youth Services. Burgos has been charged with murder.
While worker safety has always been a concern at homes for juvenile delinquents, according to Department of Youth Services data obtained via a public records request, the level of violence at the home had increased significantly in early 2021, before Hillman’s death, compared to previous years.
According to the data, there were an average of seven incidents a year of youth assaulting staff at the Springfield program between 2016 and 2020, with between six and nine recorded each year. There were six youth-on-staff assaults just in the first six months of 2021.
Ben Craft, a spokesperson for the Center for Human Development, said while the agency has not done a full analysis of the data, there are parallels in statewide data for 2021 indicating an increased rate of assaults across DYS programs. “It is important to note that a relatively small number of program participants commit a significant majority of assaults, and these data are often reflective of the particular individuals in a given program at a given time,” Craft said. “In addition, we have observed that COVID-19 protective measures in residential programming, while necessary, have reduced opportunities for healthy stress reduction, over time adding to tensions and increasing the potential for altercations.”
Some have also raised questions about whether the numbers provided by the Department of Youth Services accurately capture all assaults. Two managerial level employees who previously worked for the Center for Human Development on the Springfield campus (which hosted two other programs in addition to the boys’ residence) said in independent interviews that assaults on staff at the boys’ residence were common occurrences. One employee said he knew a staff member who was assaulted four times over a few months. The other person said staff were instructed not to report incidents if no one was hurt, the victim wasn’t pressing charges, and the issue could be handled in-house. Both asked that their names not be used because they feared employment repercussions.
A spokesperson for the Department of Youth Services did not respond to a question about the increased numbers of assaults. According to the department, any incident that requires more than first aid must be reported to DYS’s central office, and the most critical incidents are also reported to the Office of the Child Advocate. DYS also has security officers at each facility monitoring video feeds, and employees are trained on when and how to report serious incidents.
Craft said in a statement, “The safety of our staff and of those we serve is our highest priority, and that includes timely and appropriate reporting of any incidents.”
In response to the records request, the Department of Youth Services also provided a handful of “serious incident reports,” with identifying information redacted, which provided details of some altercations that occurred at the Springfield home between 2017 and 2019.
One report detailed horseplay between two residents, during which one resident put the other in a headlock, forcing him to lose consciousness for a few seconds. Later, one of the residents went into the other boy’s room and began punching him. One boy got a bloody nose; the other a swollen eye.
Another report said a resident and staff member engaged in a verbal back-and-forth. The resident then slapped the staffer in the face and punched the staffer as the staffer tried to restrain him. There were conflicting reports about whether the staffer hit the resident.
Lawmakers have started probing the assault that led to Hillman’s death. Rep. Michael Finn, a West Springfield Democrat who co-chairs the Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities, and Sen. Adam Gomez, a Springfield Democrat whose district includes the residence, met with Department of Youth Services commissioner Peter Forbes at a DYS facility in Westfield. Both lawmakers stressed that the investigation is ongoing by Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni’s office, and they will continue to ask questions about what occurred. But neither said any red flags were raised at that meeting about systemic issues at the home.
“What they told me was staffing was adequate, there weren’t any real underlying indicators that something like this was going to occur,” Finn said. Finn said he was unaware that there had been an increase in assaults this year.
Gomez said he visited the Springfield facility five days before the assault on Hillman occurred. “At that moment I didn’t see anything that was challenging to me,” Gomez said. Gomez said administrators did raise concerns about the ability to retain staff, but there is no evidence a staff shortage played a role in Hillman’s attack.
More broadly, safety has long been a concern at the homes for delinquent juveniles run by the Department of Youth Services. The residents are all teenagers who have been accused or convicted of serious crimes. A report issued by a DYS safety task force in 2018 found that the number of youth-on-staff assaults across all DYS facilities ranged from a low of 13 to a high of 30 each quarter between 2014 and 2017, with an average of 21.8 assaults per three-month period. Youth-on-youth assaults ranged anywhere from 37 to 91 a quarter during that same time, with an average of 65.9.In 2014, the union representing DYS workers negotiated an agreement with Forbes to make it easier for a staffer who wants to press charges after an assault. The union had been pushing unsuccessfully for years for legislation that would accomplish the same thing. But the agreement only applies to DYS employees, not contract agencies.
“They’re at arm’s length from oversight from the state,” Jim Durkin, legislative director of AFSCME Council 93, said of contracted agencies like the Center for Human Development. That said, there are DYS staff who work at the Center for Human Development campus overseeing the program.