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Feds widen Cook youth center probe

Friday, September 29, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Ofelia Casillas and Mickey Ciokajlo

Tribune staff reporter Jeff Coen contributed to this report

A federal grand jury has demanded photographs, internal reports and other documents in a growing criminal investigation into alleged violence and abuse at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, sources said Thursday.

A subpoena for the evidence last week came just one day after federal agents swept across Cook County government offices, including the detention center, as part of a broad investigation into county hiring.

But sources said Thursday that the latest subpoena was from a different grand jury, indicating for the first time that two federal criminal probes into county government are under way.

The subpoena, issued Sept. 22, asks for paperwork on the use of force and internal affairs reports regarding allegations of abuse, according to two Cook County sources. It also seeks complaint forms by employees, residents or third parties.

The grand jury wants records of interviews and the names of alleged subjects, victims and witnesses to the alleged incidents. It also asked for personnel files of implicated employees, one source said.

"We've been concerned about the problems of staff abuse at the facility for many years, and we welcome additional oversight from the federal government," said Benjamin Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The center houses about 400 boys and girls, ages 10 to 16, most awaiting trial.

On Sept. 20 federal agents issued the hiring subpoena to the detention center asking for applicant files, comments concerning applicants' eligibility and records related to the date and time that applications were received, sources said.

Those investigators also asked for records of interviews, including evaluation forms and rankings of applicants.

Materials in response to both subpoenas are due Oct. 12, a source said.

"We are cooperating with this investigation," said Chinta Strausberg, spokeswoman for County Board President Bobbie Steele.

Commissioner Forrest Claypool, who has called for reforms at the center, said he was encouraged by the federal investigation.

"All the evidence suggests that the violence against children at the juvenile center has continued despite an ongoing civil lawsuit. And it may be that what's necessary to finally protect these kids is criminal charges from the U.S. attorney, so I welcome the news," Claypool said.

"It sounds as if they're expanding and ratcheting up their investigation to take into account all of the abuses ... from financial corruption to the beatings and mistreatment of the juvenile detainees."

In April, FBI spokesman Ross Rice confirmed that the Chicago office began looking into whether civil rights laws were violated shortly after media reports surfaced about problems at the center.

Last year, the Tribune and other media reported that former residents alleged they had been involved in violence at the center, some at the hands of staff members. In January, the Tribune reported a fresh allegation of a staff beating at the center.

Charles Fasano, a court-appointed monitor at the center, has been visiting the facility for months, working with other experts to comply with a federal court agreement to improve conditions.

"I am a firm believer in the fact that if there are some grounds for an agency to initiate an investigation, I think they should do so.... Good, do what you got to do and let's see what comes out of it. That may be beneficial for our efforts," Fasano said.

"What I'm more concerned about is how do we develop systems or protocols to either prevent or minimize those kinds of incidents--staff misconduct in the abuse of juveniles."

Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris expressed hope the federal investigation would be the last in a long line of attempts to fix the center's problems.

"Different experts, different administrations coming into the Juvenile Detention Center--hopefully this will put all of that to bed," Harris said. "It's been a long time coming."

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. Dissatisfied with the results, ACLU attorneys have been battling with county lawyers in court ever since.

U.S. District Judge John Nordberg has chastised county officials for failing to address repeated reports of violence against residents.

A report compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation cited "multiple instances of battery or assault by staff on residents." The 40-page study, based on interviews with the center's staff and residents, confirmed reports of violence and abuse previously cited in media reports and by the ACLU.

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.

In June, Nordberg appointed Brenda Welch as compliance administrator for the detention facility, giving her the duty of implementing the recommendations of a four-member panel charged with improving the center.

Welch's memos, reported in the Tribune, portrayed continuing problems with hygiene and safety among the juveniles held at the center.

A plan by experts to bring the center into compliance with federal court agreements is expected next month, Fasano said.

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