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So much talk, so little change

Thursday, May 18, 2006
Chicago Tribune

So after nearly a year of intense scrutiny on problems at Cook County's youth detention center, a host of independent reports about the terrible conditions for kids, and repeated federal court hearings, the result is ... (deep breath) ... little change.

The Cook County Board on Tuesday approved a court agreement that would bring in yet another team of professionals to diagnose problems at the center. That team will, in 60 days, write an aggressive prescription to fix the place. Then an independent compliance czar will move into the center for at least six months to become, if he or she is doing the job right, the most unpopular person in the building. A handful of monitors will help ensure the center's 500 employees follow the plan.

A federal judge overseeing the class-action suit between the county and the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents youth at the center, is expected to approve the agreement Thursday.

We'll hope for the best with this latest settlement. We're encouraged that this highly respected team of four juvenile-detention experts from around the country will provide greater scrutiny and a clear road map toward reform.

But the wholesale cultural change needed inside the center is still a long shot under this agreement. Reform team members will have authority to make recommendations, such as who needs to be replaced, but they'll need a judge's order to enforce them. And so far, U.S. District Judge John Nordberg, who oversees the settlement, has shown a persistent unwillingness to impose the court's authority. Let's hope his reticence melts.

Only one person has the power to fundamentally improve the experience of the more than 6,000 youths who pass through the detention center's doors each year: the Cook County Board president.

Given President John Stroger's frail health, it seems likely that he will step aside and Cook County will have a new leader by next year.

Here's our plea for the next president: Turn the operation of the juvenile center over to real professionals, people who get their jobs not because they work for a ward organization, but because they want to work and know how to work with challenging kids. Hire people who share a vision that juvenile detention can be a critical intervention point in the life of a troubled child.

The next president shouldn't simply comply with a plan of reform--he should lead a dramatic transformation of the facility that goes beyond any court order. That will save him a lot of grief down the road, and help a generation of kids.

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

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