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Juvenile detention center to get review

Monday, November 07, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times
by ANNIE SWEENEY Crime Reporter

Teams of local experts will go inside the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in coming weeks to see how the youth jail measures up against some of the toughest national standards.

Several volunteers, who work inside and outside the juvenile justice system, were trained last week by attorneys from the Youth Law Center, a national firm that focuses on juvenile justice, about how to assess conditions inside the center at 1100 S. Hamilton.

The assessments are part of a comprehensive review organized by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which contacted the county after recent reports of trouble at the center.

The Chicago Sun-Times has reported criminal background checks were ordered after officials discovered some employees had felony backgrounds, including one who had attempted-murder charges filed against him. More recently, the paper reported about the practice of staff allegedly allowing residents to fight in specially designated rooms.

Agreement with ACLU

But complaints about the center, for years known as the Audy Home, are not new.

Back in 1998, the John Howard Association, a prison reform group, issued a long report about conditions inside the center, and the following year, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of several residents. Allegations in the suit ranged from physical assaults by staff to substandard health care.

An agreement was reached between the ACLU and the county, but ACLU officials have expressed concern in recent months that conditions have not really improved.

Officials from the county and the Casey Foundation said they believe this time will be different.

The local inspections are being done in conjunction with other evaluations, said Bart Lubow, director of the Program for High Risk Youth at the Baltimore-based Casey Foundation.

For example, Supt. Jerry Robinson, a former deputy superintendent for the Chicago Police Department before taking over at the center in June, has been teamed with a national expert in juvenile justice for guidance and help, Lubow said. And the Casey Foundation plans to send in additional outside experts to further examine health-related issues at the center, including the physical treatment of residents.

Youths to be interviewed

Eventually, Lubow would like to see a "model unit'' established that will include all of the best practices.

"The most important difference is that what I have heard and seen is strong indication that the County Board president and the County Board want to use this as a way to finally fix this,'' Lubow said.

Michael Rohan, the director of Juvenile Probation and Court Services for the county, agreed, saying he had "very high hopes this process will provide opportunities for significant systemic change."

Those on the local inspection teams -- which also include two former residents -- are equally determined to get inside and talk to kids to get an honest idea of how things are being run, said Rick Velasquez, executive director of Youth Outreach Services, a Chicago social service agency, and the chairman of the group that will do the assessments.

"If we see it, we say it,'' said Velasquez, who said he also welcomes a certain level of skepticism of this latest effort. "We have to continue to make sure this process has a lot of integrity and that it's transparent.''

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