SOUTH SALT LAKE, Utah — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, Utah's juvenile detention centers halted visitation.
"Heavy moments. Like, decisions have to be made," Brett Peterson, the director of Utah's Juvenile Justice Services said. "One of those was saying, 'We’re not going to be able to have visitors in the middle of a pandemic.' That was tough."
But as everyone quickly pivoted to relying on Zoom, FaceTime, WebEx and other video communication technologies, the state's juvenile detention facilities also started using them to allow incarcerated youth to keep in touch with family and therapists.
Across Utah, about 150 youth are currently incarcerated. Pre-pandemic, some families would have to drive hours to visit a loved one.
Because of concern about virus spread, Utah's Juvenile Justice Services invested in tablets, interactive devices and beefing up internet access. They got a $1 million grant using federal CARES Act money to help make it happen.
What Peterson said they have discovered so far, is using new tech has led to increased visitation with children and their families in Utah and other states. Staffers still casually monitor to ensure proper use of the devices and that visitation complies with court orders and policies.
"The virtual visits? Absolutely here to stay. Zero question in my mind," he said. "That’s something we’ll keep in place. Because we’ve had some families and some youth who have had more interaction with their family members during COVID than they did before."
One of those who has benefited is Jan, who lives in St. George and has a grandson in a juvenile detention facility.
"We would not have been able to see him at all," she said. "We can Zoom with him three times a week."
Jan (whose last name FOX 13 is not using to avoid identifying her grandson) said he is in a facility 40 minutes away from her. The boy's mother lives in California. Using Zoom, they've been able to participate in therapy sessions with him and keep in touch.
"It gives me the opportunity to see him and feel how he is and the reassurance that he is being taken care of and he is making progress," she said, adding that her grandson really likes the virtual visits.
In-person visitation at juvenile detention facilities is returning now that vaccinations are increasing in the state. But Peterson said the virtual visits will still be an option. He said they are tracking data to report on its effectiveness, but anecdotally it has been largely positive. Many of the children in the facilities have expressed a desire to keep visiting virtually, especially those with relatives outside Utah.
"We have no trend that’s showing any more problematic behaviors that frankly, I thought we were going to be experiencing," Peterson said. "Because I thought we’d have kids more and more cut off from their community."
Another benefit to the pivot to web-based technology, the state has been able to hire more therapists to work with incarcerated youth. Some of them are in rural Utah and able to telecommute.