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Juvenile center chided on reform
Staffing problems continue, report says

Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Ofelia Casillas

Despite encouraging changes in leadership, reform has not trickled down to frontline workers at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, according to a new report by a prisoner advocacy group.

During a late August visit, observers from the John Howard Association of Illinois found that the controversial center suffers from a shortage of counselors--especially good counselors, the group concluded in a report for release Wednesday.

"Safety for children will remain an issue until the culture, standard of care and lack of professionalism that prevailed among some staff for a number of years is completely eliminated," the report warns.

J.W. Fairman, the center's interim superintendent since Aug. 1, acknowledged that problems continue, but he said change takes time.

"It takes time to get everybody on the same page when you are taking over the operation of a troubled institution," Fairman said. "As long as progress is being made, I'm happy about it. Is the administration satisfied? No, but we are happy that there is movement."

Last year, the Tribune and other news media reported that former residents alleged they had been involved in violence at the center, some at the hands of staff members.

In September, a federal grand jury issued subpoenas demanding photographs, internal reports and other documents in a growing criminal investigation into alleged violence and abuse.

Benjamin Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said it was important to remember that new leaders were only recently assigned to their positions.

"It is a difficult change process, and I don't think we've done it yet," Wolf said. "But I think it is true that we remain concerned about the safety of the children and about the behavior of some staff."

John Howard advocates applauded improvements like the addition of two-way radios on living units, a crackdown on contraband and plans to better acclimate new residents when they arrive.

Still, advocates said staffing levels fell short of optimal among floor managers, supervisors, detention counselors and caseworkers. And the quality of some detention counselors continued to worry advocates, who called for disciplining or discharging counselors who mishandle residents.

On a more mundane level, the observers noted that some counselors interact little with the teenagers in their care, spending their time eating or doing paperwork.

"Our visitors were, as in the past, concerned about the dedication, interest and suitability of some of the line staff," the report said.

The John Howard observers reported five incidents during three weeks in which staff members were alleged to have injured children.

A girl told advocates that staff members threw her down on concrete, causing swelling to the side of her face, the report said.

Other children said they got nosebleeds or head contusions while being restrained by staffers. Another child said a staff member trying to break up a fight accidentally struck him.

"The detention center's medical unit records show continuing allegations by children of injuries caused by staff, with some injuries verified by medical observation," the report found.

Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool, who has advocated for reforms at the center, said the report calls for radical change.

"This report underscores the need for a house cleaning throughout the senior management and more aggressive steps to fix this troubled institution," Claypool said.

County Commissioner Mike Quigley questioned whether the John Howard Association was going far enough in its criticisms, saying the group had "overstayed their welcome in terms of really being helpful.

"In the end this place does not make a turnaround until the whole culture is changed through putting professionals in place, taking politics out of it and letting them run this facility appropriately," Quigley said.

County Board President Bobbie Steele applauded the report and said that it shows management changes are contributing to progress.

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 went back to court in 2005 and 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.

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 at the center.

In the next few weeks, a plan drafted by independent experts to make additional improvements at the detention center is expected to be completed and submitted to a federal judge, Wolf said.

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