Juvenile Justice Center rebounds after near wipe-out flooding

Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 9:05pm
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Jude Ferrara/SouthComm 

Juvenile Court Judge Betty Adams Green got a call on Saturday, May 1, 2010, alerting her that some 30 juvenile detainees might have to be moved out of the detention area at the Metro Juvenile Justice Center.

She’d been in Camden, Tenn., for the weekend, and following the record rainfall over that span, Green wouldn’t be able to make her way back into a historically crippled Nashville until Monday morning. 

By 1:30 that Monday afternoon, the still-swelling Cumberland River forced water contaminated with raw sewage up from a sewer drain in the JJC’s parking lot and eventually several feet high into the basement level, which housed the detention area and kitchen, as well as offices for the Juvenile Division of the Metro Public Defender’s Office and representatives from the District Attorney’s Office.

As workers struggled in vain to pump water out of the bowels of the JJC, a skeleton crew of court employees handled the essential hearings, such as those for detention and emergency child neglect matters that federal law mandates must happen within 72 hours, without the use of computers or phones.

Juvenile Court employees, with support from the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office (as well as numerous other Metro agencies), relocated the juvenile detainees, while others hustled to move nearly 3,100 banker’s-style boxes containing Juvenile Court Clerk files, along with hundreds more boxes of files from the other offices housed in the JJC’s basement. 

All told, the floodwaters hit the JJC with some $4.5 million in total damage, knocked it out of commission for nine and a half months, and soaked perhaps between 15,000 and 20,000 files. 

Displaced Metro employees started moving back into the JJC during the second week of March. Still, things aren’t quite back to normal at 100 Woodland St. on the Cumberland River’s east bank. 

 

As the floodwaters receded last May, Juvenile Court dockets continued on as required by law. Those dockets that could wait were suspended until more resources were available, Green said, while over the next four or five weeks Metro General Services scrambled to find temporary workspace for the 130
displaced juvenile court employees.

The majority of employees found space in the either the Metro Courthouse, the Justice A.A. Birch Building, the Metro Student Attendance Center, at the Metro Police East Precinct or the Metro Southeast at Genesco Park by the airport.

It had been common practice to have probation officers working out of some housing developments, but two or three extra employees would move into each of these spots as well. 

“Was it a supervision and management nightmare? Absolutely,” Green said of the coordination involved. “It took more patience, and a lot more planning and cooperation.” 

Julius Sloss, director of operations for the Juvenile Court Clerk’s office, estimated that 25 percent of the court’s files were waterlogged after the flood and had to be shipped by refrigerated trucks to Chicago for a $750,000 restoration process, causing magistrates, attorneys and probation officers to use what individual files they each had to piece together case details. 

“If there was something missing — and there was a lot of 'somethings missing' — then the lawyers would get together and agree on what that was, what it said and how it needed to be treated for purposes of [the case at hand],” Green said. 

What hard copies of files remained available would have to be transported — with Juvenile Court employees serving as couriers — to wherever the respective docket was being held.

Though a bit late, some good has followed the bad. The flood and the logistical juggling act that followed “led us to realize that we need to rely more on electronic copies,” said Tim Adgent, Juvenile Court administrator. 

The clerk’s office had already started scanning its files into digital format, although few had actually been converted. The file-scanning process started in earnest months after David Smith took over as Juvenile Court Clerk in September and after the clerk’s office received about $300,000 from the Metro Council in December. With that money, according to Smith, the office hired 12 temporary employees to feed files into six commercial-grade, high-speed scanners that convert the files to digital format. 

“It’s something that should have been done for years, but nobody really took it on,” Smith said. 

So far, it appears there have been no serious issues where flood-damaged or potentially lost files have interfered with cases. No one knows what problems the “wet files” (as they’re known in the clerk’s office) may cause in the future.

Rob Robinson, supervisor of the public defender office’s juvenile division, said he and his colleagues were able to follow up on pending cases even though the assistant public defenders also lost many files to the water.

“They tried to salvage what they could of the files,” he said, “but even the ones that went through [the restoration] process are very difficult to use …. It’s very difficult to access those files now.”

“I can’t think of an example since the flood where we just absolutely have not been able to find a file,” Sloss said. “But I’m sure that has occurred somewhere where we just [won’t] know it until that day comes.”

The restorations of the JJC benefited security most. According to Velvet Hunter, assistant director of administration at Metro General Services, the 14-year-old pre-flood security system received a “complete upgrade,” with a new intercom and security camera system (with more cameras), an active control system for better monitoring, and a secured parking area. 

Further, closets housing IT components of the system were enclosed in waterproof cabinets and raised above the flood line. Aside from a complete bio-restoration to clean up after the flood, the building received a new HVAC system and electrical system, as well as environmentally friendly upgrades to lighting and plumbing fixtures.

While Metro General Services has submitted the $4.5 million tab to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in hope of full reimbursement, there’s no projected timeframe on when an answer might come, according to Hunter.

Adgent expects what he called the “last piece of the puzzle,” the juvenile detainees, to be placed back into the JJC detention center later this week or next — once the final restorative touches have been made, the detention center is up to accreditation standards and the upgraded security features have all been tested.

“This will be the last component to getting them back and getting us all under the roof that we were under prior to the flood,” he said. “We’re just glad to be home.”