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Juvenile Detention Facility in Virginia Has Coronavirus Outbreak



Twenty-five young people held in state custody have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Department of Juvenile Justice.

The numbers amount to about one-eighth of the population at the Bon Air Correctional Facility, outside Richmond. 21 of the cases were asymptomatic. 


Valerie Slater with the advocacy organization RISE for Youth has been pressing the Department of Juvenile Justice, or DJJ, for the number of COVID positive children at Bon Air Correctional Facility for weeks. Then the Department released the numbers late Friday and they blew her away.

“My heart actually just kind of dropped into my stomach and I mean I just can’t even tell you how sad I am right for all of those families of all of the children there,” said Slater on Saturday. 

According to DJJ there are currently 191 residents at Bon Air. Facility officials have tested about a third of the population, anyone with a temperature above 99-degrees. 

In an interview Sunday, the facility’s director Valerie Boykin says she’d love to test every resident but capacity is limited and “our understanding from the Health Department is the child has to have some kind of symptom in order to be tested.” 

Of those tested, 21 residents were found positive without any other symptoms. Four had nothing “more severe than a cold or flu.”  All were isolated, and the Health Department recommended a two week quarantine for everyone in the facility. 

Residents at Bon Air are between 14 and 20 years old.

“We are talking about children,” said Slater. “We cannot allow the framing of these young people to be such that it erases the fact that they are indeed children.” 

One of those residents is Arjanae Avula’s younger brother. Avula is worried for his physical health -- he's 18 and has asthma -- but also his mental health.  She last spoke to him a week ago, just for a couple minutes. 

“He seems like kind of out of it, frustrated, a little bit depressed,” she said, adding that he’s normally quite chatty. 

He used to have lessons, a group anger management class, and time to hang out in a common area. Now he says he’s held alone for 23 hours a day. That matches accounts from others with family at Bon Air. 

Boykin, the facility’s director, says that after the first resident tested positive in early April she followed recommendations from the Department of Health and instituted a quarantine for all residents. 


“They do have their educational materials, their therapists are still meeting with them - their counseling with them to the extent they can, it is modified,” Boykin said. “It’s not an ideal situation for any of us, including them."

Boykin added that the quarantine is due to be relaxed this week after cleaning crews come in to sanitize open spaces. 

Michelle Williams’ 19-year-old son is at Bon Air. She's been dissapointed by the level of communication from facility leadership. She found out about the outbreak from advocacy groups and she doesn’t know if her son has been tested. He used to call her regularly, but hasn’t been since the quarantine began. 

“That is part of therapy for him. That is the part that keeps him grounded,” said Williams during a phone interview Saturday. “Being able to reach out to his siblings and myself. (It) gives him a self of calmness. It reduces his anxiety.” 

Family members and advocates are asking DJJ to review each child's case, prioritizing transferring everyone home that they can. Boykin says since mid-March they’ve been able to release 14 residents, with 10 more scheduled soon. 

“This is a particularly challenging time for release and we’re trying to do as best we can, but schools are closed and on top of that (for) those who are age appropriate for work -- nobody’s hiring,” she said. 

For those who remain, advocates continue to push for ongoing professional counseling, as well as clear and consistent communication with families. On Sunday, Boykin said they plan on sending a letter notifying families about the outbreak Monday.


This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.


Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.