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Overseer appointed for juvenile center

Thursday, June 08, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times

An outside administrator was appointed Wednesday to oversee long-awaited changes at the county juvenile detention center, for years criticized for problems such as employing staff with criminal records and political hiring.

Brenda Welch, a former warden and parole officer in Illinois, will work with four nationally recognized juvenile justice experts to make changes at the Cook County Temporary Detention Center, according to a federal court order. The order, agreed to by the county and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, also lays out a timeline for improvements.

"It's a very important positive step, but the hard work is really over the next eight months,'' said ACLU Associate Legal Director Benjamin Wolf.

Welch, who recently left her position as director of the Children's Center at DuPage County, was appointed by U.S. District Judge John Nordberg and will work with Supt. Jerry Robinson.

4 experts to help make changes

The four experts appointed are: David Rousch, an authority on juvenile justice who has worked with the Annie E. Casey Foundation; Carl Sanniti, who has run juvenile detention facilities in Georgia and Maryland; Michael Cohen, medical director for the juvenile system in New York State, and Louis Kraus, head of child psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center.

The group has 60 days to create a plan for improvement, Wolf said.

Changes were first agreed to in 2002 as a result of a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of children at the center at 1100 S. Hamilton. The lawsuit against Cook County outlined chronic problems including physical assaults by staff and substandard health care.

ACLU praises appointee

But problems persisted. Last year, media including the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that some staffers at the center had felony arrest records, and residents reported they were allowed or encouraged to fight when they had conflicts. The Sun-Times also detailed a pattern of political hiring out of the 8th Ward, which is Cook County Board President John Stroger's power base.

Wolf called Welch a tough woman with considerable experience at the lowest and highest levels of correctional institutions. That includes starting as a parole officer, working as an assistant warden at Joliet Correctional Center, and most recently at the Children's Center at DuPage County.

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