Abdul El-Sayed talks with Authentically Detroit and BridgeDetroit about his first 90 days as leader of the county's public health services. (BridgeDetroit photo by Christine Ferretti)

Abdul El-Sayed became the leader of Wayne County’s health office this spring and said he dove right into a crisis: an overcrowded and under-resourced facility for juvenile detention.

This story also appeared in Authentically Detroit

“This is not an area of work that I have ever been a part of, not an area of work that I’ve ever wanted to be a part of, but when I jumped in we saw the opportunity to rethink the way that we have done things,” El-Sayed said in an interview with Authentically Detroit and BridgeDetroit. 

El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate who also led and reformed services for the Detroit Health Department, became director of Wayne County’s Department of Health, Human and Veteran Services on March 1. Weeks later, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans signed a public health emergency order over “dangerous” conditions in the Juvenile Detention Facility and El-Sayed has been running incident command. 

The health order noted overcrowding at the Hamtramck facility led to “violent incidents, accusations of physical and sexual assaults.” The order came after The Detroit Free Press reported Michigan State Police launched an investigation into the alleged sexual assault of a 12-year-old boy at the facility.

Youth waiting for residential long-term rehabilitation and treatment were being kept at the detention center for overextended periods of time amid a COVID-induced case backlog.

“It (the emergency order) allows us to bypass a lot of the red tape that tends to exist in government to work a lot faster,” El-Sayed told BridgeDetroit. “So we staffed up, we raised wages 35% across the board. We’ve hired about 40 new people, we have another 30 that we are hiring. We’ve expanded the amount of space within the facility so we don’t have as much overcrowding.

“No matter what,” he added, “we owe our kids the best chance at a dignified life coming out of this space. When we as a collective disinvest in thinking about the long-term, we create a situation where unfortunately kids end up getting warehoused.”

El-Sayed provided an update on the county’s progress with the facility and laid out priorities in his first 90 days, stressing much of his work has been ensuring the facility is safe and secure and providing youth with opportunities. 

The facility, he said, had gone from an average of 65 to 80 youth per day to an average of 150 youth per day – and the wait time for long-term treatment skyrocketed from three weeks to 127 days. 

“So you have kids who are adjudicated to treatment, they are not getting their treatment,” he said about the circumstances ahead of the public health order. 

El-Sayed said the early improvements are just the start. There’s much more to be done. 

“That’s recognizing that this facility is the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “So much of what we ought to be doing is what we do in communities to invest in children from jump, and that doesn’t happen enough.”

El-Sayed said efforts are first made to keep youth out of the facility and with caregivers when possible. But that’s often not possible. More than 50% of youth in the facility are being held on capital crimes, he said. 

“I’ve never worked with a population that lost everything including other people’s sympathy,” El-Sayed said. 

The physician, epidemiologist and author told BridgeDetroit that the most important work is keeping kids from landing in juvenile facilities in the first place. That starts with higher quality schools and keeping children healthy. The problem, he said, is captured in a lesson learned from a medical school professor: “hurt people, hurt people.”

“We’ve got to be thinking about all of the trauma and victimization that happens well ahead of a child being involved in a violent offense. So much of that is what I came to the county to do, what so much of my work is about … how do we invest in the kinds of communities, the kinds of homes, environment and schools that empower a young person well before anything like this ever happens.

“If you want to talk about fixing the juvenile legal system, those kinds of interventions are what we really have to invest in,” he added. “It’s taking on the circumstances that create hurt people who then potentially go on to hurt people.”

El-Sayed said he hopes to expand a program that the county has worked on with Detroit to an offering countywide which provides kids with a pair of glasses if they need them. He said one third of children need corrective eyewear at some point and “we also know that they are likely not going to get them.” The program ensures students get the eyewear they need to see the  blackboard and their homework.

The county will soon roll out other programs to address preterm births and infant mortality, asthma and pollution as well as other public health interventions. 

“That’s the work that I am focused on and I know that’s the vision that the county executive has for our county, which is a place where we’re investing in kids well before they ever get caught up in these kinds of circumstances,” he said. 

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