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FBI targets youth facility
Reports of violence at Cook County juvenile center fuel civil rights inquiry

Friday, April 07, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Ofelia Casillas, Todd Lighty and Mickey Ciokajlo

Federal agents are investigating allegations of abuse by staff members at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, sources said Thursday.

Ross Rice, FBI spokesman, confirmed the Chicago office began looking into the allegations shortly after media reports surfaced about problems at the center.

Last year, the Tribune and other media reported the allegations of former residents who said they had been involved in violence at the center, some at the hands of staff members. In January the Tribune detailed a fresh allegation of a staff beating at the center.

"We are conducting a preliminary inquiry in an effort to determine whether there were any violations of federal civil rights laws committed at the facility," Rice said. Agents from the civil rights unit were conducting the inquiry, he said. He declined to elaborate.

One source close to the investigation said federal authorities have asked about allegations of abuse by staff members as well as possible inappropriate actions or culpability of supervisors.

The center houses about 400 boys and girls ages 10-16, most awaiting trial for offenses.

Laura Lechowicz Felicione, the top legal adviser to Cook County Board President John Stroger, said the county has not received any subpoenas from the FBI regarding the center.

Chinta Strausberg, Stroger's director of communications, would not discuss the investigation.

"We do not comment on any pending investigation," Strausberg said late Thursday.

The federal investigation is the latest in a series of outside examinations into reports of wrongdoing at the center.

In federal court, the American Civil Liberties Union is asking a judge to name an independent manager to oversee reforms, arguing that reports of unsafe conditions violate a 2002 consent decree governing the facility.

U.S. District Judge John Nordberg said in February the center's superintendent, Jerry Robinson, "flunked his test." Nordberg chastised county officials for failing to address ongoing reports of violence against residents.

At a separate hearing in February, Nordberg reprimanded detention administrators for not telling the court about an incident reported in the Tribune in which a 16-year-old boy alleged that an employee beat him hard enough to rupture his eardrum.

That same month, a report compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation cited "multiple instances of battery or assault by staff on residents." The 40-page study, based on interviews with the center's staff and administrators, as well as experts and residents, confirmed reports of violence and abuse previously cited in media reports and by the ACLU.

Late last year, Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan subpoenaed documents from the county related to allegations of payroll and contract fraud at the center made by a whistle-blower.

Melissa Merz, a spokeswoman for Madigan, declined to comment Thursday, saying her office does not talk about investigations. Merz would not say whether Madigan's office had handed over its investigation to the FBI or whether the federal government's inquiry was a separate matter.

The center was a campaign issue in last month's Democratic primary election for County Board president. Stroger, despite suffering a stroke that has kept him out of sight for more than three weeks, beat challenger Forrest Claypool to claim the party's nomination to seek a fourth term in November.

Before he fell ill, Stroger repeatedly stressed that his administration had taken action against staff members who had abused children, and he contended that the situation was not as bad as the media, the ACLU and his political opponents said.

Stroger on several occasions reiterated his support for Robinson, a former Chicago police official whom he hired last year to run the facility.

The ACLU originally filed a federal suit on behalf of center residents in 1999 but settled nearly four years ago when the county agreed to improve conditions. Dissatisfied with the results, ACLU attorneys returned to court in November to ask for an independent manager.

"We welcome a full investigation, and we believe that there are some serious problems in the facility as we've alleged in federal court," ACLU attorney Benjamin Wolf said Thursday.

Nordberg has scheduled a hearing for April 18 to hear testimony on conditions in the center.

Critics charge that Stroger has used the center as a dumping ground for patronage hires unqualified to handle juveniles. Some of its leaders--including Robinson--have no corrections experience, and the Tribune found that some employees who worked there in recent months had criminal records.



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