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Failing the kids

Friday, April 21, 2006
Chicago Tribune

An apparent agreement to create a new reform plan for the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center is a terrible disappointment, and it should be rejected by the federal court. It offers little chance of making the facility safer for kids.

A tentative compromise was reached this week between the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents children detained at the center, and Cook County officials. They're all in court because the ACLU said the county violated a previous agreement to improve conditions at the center.

What's that saying, fool me once ...?

Under the new deal, four independent experts would craft yet another reform plan for the detention center. An outside administrator would be assigned to ensure compliance with it.

But that's not much different from what the county is supposed to be adhering to now. And here's the key: None of the juvenile center administrators who contributed to the mess there will necessarily lose their high-paying jobs.

That's a guarantee for failure.

Another reform plan isn't what the troubled juvenile center needs. The center got a reform plan in 2002, but those who run the place ignored it.

What's needed is nothing short of a change in culture at the detention center, and that will require a wholesale change in leadership there.

Recent, independent inspections of the center have confirmed it is still filthy and rife with problems. The ACLU has found that reported incidents of violence against kids by staff members have been on the rise.

The plan is expected to be presented next month for the approval of U.S. District Judge John Nordberg.

What's most disheartening is that Nordberg at one point seemed to grasp that it would take nothing short of an independent manager with hiring and firing authority to truly change the place. Two months ago, the judge sharply scolded the administrators. He said the center's superintendent had "flunked his test."

That should have signaled that the ACLU would get what it sought: A permanent, independent administrator. But Nordberg appears unwilling to make that happen.

We know that Cook County officials are unwilling to acknowledge the extent of the problems at the center. And it appears the court is unwilling to act forcefully on behalf of the kids.

So if Nordberg won't reject this agreement, others must step up. The Cook County public defender's office has done a poor job of visiting its clients at the center and pressing to improve the conditions there. It needs to become more of a vocal watchdog. Juvenile Court judges must ask youths and caseworkers who come before them about conditions, about what they're learning in school, about how they're treated. Judges, lawyers and monitors will need to walk upstairs periodically to scrutinize the place themselves.

Nordberg is expected to consider the agreement on May 3. It'll be Groundhog Day in federal court. We'll start the reform process all over again.

With essentially the same people in place to carry out that plan, it's a good bet that we'll see everybody back in court, probably around 2009.



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