A 2008 DOJ study found that youngsters in the county's care were at serious risk. Progress since then has been troublingly slow.
Two recently released reports raise a string of questions about the progress made—or lack thereof—by Los Angeles County's troubled juvenile probation system in response to a list of demands ordered by the Civil Rights arm of the Department of Justice (DOJ).
The reports are the result of a 2008 “settlement agreement” with Justice after the DOJ investigated LA's juvenile probation camps and found them rife with horrors. The young people in the county's care were not being “adequately protected from harm,” said federal investigators.
The feds found that probation officers batted kids around, instigated fights (some of which were caught on video and wound up on YouTube) or looked the other way when one group of kids pounded another.
Staff also made kids stand or sit in body-stressing positions; randomly denied them bathroom breaks, recreational time and/or medical treatment; failed to check on kids who were on suicide watch; pepper-sprayed teenagers over trivialities; and drank alcohol on the job—among other transgressions and illegalities.
In order to avoid a big fat DOJ lawsuit over the laundry list of civil rights violations, the Board of Supervisors signed a “settlement” that obligated the county to substantial changes in 41 “areas of concern” that included such issues as: “Threats and Intimidation,” “Uses of Force,” “Supervision of Youth at Risk of Self-Harm,” “Suicide Prevention”—and, yes, “Consumption of Alcohol By Staff.”
The county was given four years to make the necessary changes, with a final deadline of October of 2012. To insure compliance, the improvements were to be made under the watchful eye of a monitoring team of experts in the juvenile justice field, who would issue progress reports to the DOJ and the Board of Sups on a bi-yearly basis.
In addition, as an extra fail-safe after last summer's debacle in which new and awful revelations about probation seemed to surface daily, the Supervisors asked County Auditor-Controller Wendy Watanabe to do a quantitative summary report assessing Probation's progress with the DOJ demands.
WitnessLA has obtained copies of both of these reports—neither of which paints a cheering picture.
When I interviewed Probation's DOJ Bureau Chief Ron Barrett about the reports, he said that there has been substantial additional progress since the reporting periods covered, and that, in all but “two or three provisions” the camps will be in “full compliance” with the DOJ mandates by the Fall 2011 deadline.
However, a close reading of the reports, plus interviews with three different sources intimate with the monitoring and assessment process, suggested a far more worrisome view.
“There is still grave concern about the camps,” said one of the insiders I interviewed who is close to the monitors. “For one thing, there is no way the county can achieve compliance by the deadline in a lot of the major categories.”
While inroads have been made in certain areas, he said. Overall “the sense of urgency is not commensurate with the need.”
For instance, on pp: 7-9 of the monitors' report, one finds a section titled, “Abusive Institutional Practices,” that outlines “abusive and/or threatening behaviors” toward kids that staff are ordered to avoid. The behaviors include:
….”slamming” youth into hard surfaces such as walls, floors, doors or any other hard surface/object; or placing youth into uncomfortable positions for long periods of time that may be viewed by a reasonable person as inappropriate….denial or limiting of restroom access….taking punishing or restricting the programming opportunities, including limiting outdoor recreation, for large groups of youth when one or two youth act out…”
While the report indicates such incidents were occurring with somewhat less frequency than in the past, they are still occurring.
Probation's Barrett said that some of the areas of low compliance had mostly to the do with the fact that it took time to train the 1000 or so employees in these new policies. But my source waved that explanation away as spin.
“Look,” he said, “probation officers are theoretically part of a paramilitary organization,” he said. “So why can't they follow the rules on use of force? It's that simple.”
Even in areas where the reports show compliance, an insider familiar with the day-to-day running of the camps said the reality is otherwise.
For instance, the Auditor-Controller's report indicates that that a grievance system is in place in all the camps that allows kids to file complaints against staff that are then promptly addressed.
The new system is in place, the source agreed, but kids rarely file grievances because of the ongoing fear of retaliation from staff. “They're intimidated. That hasn't changed. Plus they've learned from experience that the grievances still don't go anywhere.”
Still other categories of concern included suicide prevention. While it was documented that staff had received training in how to keep kids from hurting themselves, it was not clear that the methods were being properly implemented in all the camps.
Monitors worried on pp. 71-73 of their report that some staff were not really checking on suicidal kids in solitary confinement, even when they filled out forms declaring that they had.
In still others of the 41 categories where the Auditor-Controller indicated high levels of “compliance,” some said that the so-called compliance had more to do with checking boxes and generating “piles of paperwork,” than with any kind of real change.
With a few notable exceptions, according to the source close to the DOJ monitors, the emphasis at the camps seems still to be on punishment instead of rehabilitation, with precious little in place to help kids do better in their lives when they are finally released.
“We know that just being punitive doesn't work. It just does harm and insures that kids will be return visitors,” the source said.
The LA County probation camps' recidivism rate that reportedly runs just below 70 percent continues to validate that sad view.
Those who have held high hopes for Probation's new Chief, Don Blevins (who, with his well-liked second in command, Cal Remington, took over the dysfunctional agency a little over a year ago), wonder with dismay why the clearly compassionate Blevins hasn't cleaned house, taken names, and done whatever it requires to fix the camps that are still failing so many of LA County's kids.
Celeste Fremon is editor of WitnessLA.com. She welcomes comments from readers.