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Cook County juvenile center and ACLU reach settlement

Thursday, April 20, 2006
Chicago Defender
by Emily Howald

The Cook County Board said it was pleased that an agreement has been reached in the battle between the American Civil Liberties Union and the county over substandard conditions and staff abuse at the juvenile detention center.

"There's nothing more important than our precious children, who are our future," the board said in a statement. "We will continue to focus on the well-being of the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center's residents."

The settlement in the 7-year-old federal lawsuit was reached earlier this week. Though details of the agreement have not yet been released, Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director for the ACLU of Illinois, said it includes specific plans for reform.

He said the agreement calls for independent parties to oversee changes at the detention center because the current detention center administration "could not address the problems."

"There is one specific thing left to be done, but we have reached an agreement in principle on all the other details," Wolf said. "My only hope is that once we reach an agreement, we can get on to solve the bigger problems."

Wolf added that both sides agreed not to discuss the case until all issues are resolved. A hearing is scheduled in federal court on May 3, at which time

U.S. District Judge John Nordberg may approve the settlement. Wolf said he hopes to finalize the proposed agreement at that hearing.

In 1999, the ACLU sued the county, claiming that young offenders housed in the detention center had been assaulted and subjected to threats and that conditions at the center were substandard. An agreement was reached in 2002 to improve the overcrowded conditions, but the ACLU has charged the county with failing to carry out that agreement.

The detention center submitted a plan in 2004 to reform the facility and reportedly has been working to implement that plan since then. Two court-appointed monitors have been overseeing the reforms. But in November, the ACLU went back to court, alleging that the center failed to make the agreed changes.

A children's advocacy group based in Baltimore, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, issued a report earlier this year citing multiple instances of battery or assault by detention staff on the young residents.

Most workers at Cook County Juvenile Court Wednesday were unaware that a settlement had been reached. The few who did were tight-lipped about the case.

A staff member at the detention center said he could not comment on the case or the settlement. Al Tomaso, a supervisor for the Cook County State's Attorney's office, said he was surprised at the news of the settlement, but would not comment on the details.

Members of the Cook County Public Defender's office also were surprised to hear about the settlement. A spokeswoman for the public defender declined to comment until the terms of the settlement are released because the public defender represents many of the children in custody at the detention center.

Steve Eiseman, deputy chief probation officer, said he was familiar with the Casey report's criticisms of the detention center. He said there are "areas that were found to be wanting" in the detention center and he believes the settlement "would touch on each of these issues."

Emily Howald is a reporter for the Medill News Service.

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