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Juvenile center workers resist reform, official says

Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Ofelia Casillas

Tribune staff reporter Mickey Ciokajlo contributed to this report

Employees at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center have resisted efforts by a new court-appointed official to reform the beleaguered facility, according to memos obtained by the Tribune.

Brenda Welch, a compliance officer appointed June 7 by U.S. District Judge John Nordberg, also reported that workers and administrators continue to allow unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the detention center.

More than a dozen staff members accused of abuse by residents remained on the job without special training mandated by the court, Welch wrote.

"Administrative staff was somewhat defensive regarding present practices and resistive to new ideas," Welch wrote in an eight-page status report, dated June 30, to two court monitors.

County officials have been in and out of court for years, as reports of abuse and unsatisfactory conditions dog the juvenile center. Welch was appointed as part of the most recent settlement between the county and the American Civil Liberties Union to identify problems and help implement long-term reforms. The detention center holds an average of 400 teenagers from throughout the county who are awaiting trial.

At training sessions for workers accused of abuse, Welch reported seeing employees arrive late, bring food into the classroom and wear sunglasses and hats through sessions.

Welch also observed "focus group" sessions designed to solicit employee experiences at the center. Those sessions were poorly attended, she wrote, with key managers absent.

At one focus group, a worker reported that computer counts of center residents did not match paper records, creating confusion. That worker later told Welch that he had been chided by a supervisor for bringing the issue up at the session, according to Welch's report.

In a July 10 letter to facility Supt. Jerry Robinson, apparently recounting her conversation with him, Welch wrote: "Basic safety, sanitation and security procedures are not currently enforced. The lack of security creates a dangerous environment for staff and residents."

In that letter, Welch reported that external doors of living units were often unlocked or propped open, staff members were absent overnight and residents washed their underwear in their room sinks and toilets. Some toilets were clogged with feces, Welch noted.

Robinson responded Tuesday through a spokeswoman that his facility has "complied with all recommendations."

James Whigham, chief of staff to Cook County Board President John Stroger--who is stepping down Monday--said he had not yet read Welch's report or spoken to her about her findings and so declined to respond to specifics.

"She is doing exactly what she was hired to do, and we are delighted," Whigham said.

"I hope that she does exactly what she indicated at the time of her hire that she would do ... improve conditions, eradicate any deficiencies and set up a program that we can all be proud of and that best addresses the needs of our children there."

Benjamin Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, declined to discuss the report but said expert observations will be compiled into an improvement plan to be offered for Nordberg's approval in about a month.

"The reform process will be a challenging one. Anytime you shake things up there is going to be some resistance," Wolf said. "If any barriers are put in place, we are going to the judge to get them removed."

In May, Nordberg approved an agreement between Cook County officials and the ACLU to restrict center employees accused of abuse from direct contact with children until they received special training.

In an apparent violation of that agreement, all but one of 16 staff members identified continued to work on residential units without completing the extra training and counseling, Welch found. When Welch brought the issue to administrators' attention June 30, they agreed to stop assigning those workers to residential units, she wrote.

During room searches on the fourth-floor living units June 17, staffers discovered homemade pipes, cigarette lighters, pornography, shanks and a large amount of marijuana, Welch wrote. Weeks earlier, bullets had been found in a resident's personal clothing, she reported.

Although detention policy mandates that rooms be searched every day, administrators said they would need "extra staff" to conduct room searches of the entire facility, she found.

Under facility rules, youths can be confined to their rooms up to 24 hours, but residents were "routinely confined for 36 hours," Welch said.

In the units, she observed dangerous items like shattered glass doors. "Safety concerns on the living units include wooden hangers with steel hooks, electric cords, TV antennas, fans and wires on property tags," Welch found.

Staff checks on residents in confinement and in medical care were not conducted or documented, Welch wrote. She also noted that staff members routinely arrived to work late and left early.

Disorganization made the facility unable to respond to crises--workers did not keep track of unit lockdowns or residents' confinement, she reported.

She said administrators did not have enough radios to communicate potentially dangerous issues and kept no inventory of keys or tools.

Caseworkers were short on training hours and did not speak Spanish, though an estimated one in four families of center youths spoke little or no English, the report said.

When Welch discussed the issues with Robinson, she said he agreed to changes.

"Supt. Robinson is routinely assured that practice is consistent with policy. Most administrative staff is unaware of current policy," Welch wrote. "He stated this has been a continuing issue that he regularly addresses with staff."

Welch's observations are the latest in a seven-year battle to improve the beleaguered 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. The ACLU has contended that problems continued.

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.

Nordberg said in February that Robinson "flunked his test" and chastised county officials for failing to address ongoing reports of violence.

That month, a report compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation cited "multiple instances of battery or assault by staff on residents."

In April, the FBI confirmed that it was investigating allegations of abuse by staff members to see if any federal civil rights had been violated at the facility.



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