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New report indicate county juvenile detention center flawed

Thursday, October 19, 2006
Chicago Defender
by Demetrius Patterson, Chicago Defender

A report released Wednesday by John Howard Associates of Illinois indicated that much needed changes are underway in the flawed system of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

"For the first time in more than five years, a John Howard Association team felt that management at the Detention Center has the professional background, orientation, and apparent independence to reorganize the Detention Center, improve operations, install new procedures and guide staff at all levels toward a standard of care that could, in time, assure safety for children as well as staff members," the report stated.

 John Howard, and advocacy group for inmates' rights, visited the youth detention center back in August and compiled a 24-page report of its findings.

 "I think the biggest concern that we have is how the administration has dealt with basic safety of the juveniles," Malcolm Young, executive director of John Howard Associates, told the Defender Wednesday.

"We saw a lot of improvement in the top administration, but we still heard and saw reports of injuries to juveniles," Young said. "Reports of injuries to juveniles which were attributed to staff. We weren't in position to verify these reports, but we were able to look at medical records, and some injury complaints by some of the youths were verified by the medical records."

 When Cook County Board President Bobbie Steele took office in the beginning of August, she wiped clean the old juvenile detention administrative executives and replaced them with new blood, including current Interim Superintendent J.W. Fairman Jr.

"We had a protocol from day one," Fairman told the Defender Wednesday about investigating injuries to juvenile detainees.

Fairman said if a youth reports that a staff member has caused an injury and it's in a medical report, his office investigates it right away and tries to corroborate the incident through an investigation. The accused staffer is separated from the youth and put on paid leave while the investigation is active.

 "The place has been going through a lot of criticism by everybody, which is not bad," Fairman said. "But people need have reasonable expectations and give the facility some opportunity to straighten itself out."

 Visible progress can be seen now, Fairman added, but the detention center needs a good year to see major changes, he said.

Young said there is no system in place to accurately record and investigate alleged incidents of abuse. He said there should be a running record available to attorneys and to the public (without youth names) to watch for any patterns of complaints.

 "It concerns me that the previous administration failed to put into place a hotline for anyone to call and place a complaint if some incident occurs," Young said.

 A hotline system, however, wouldn't work, Fairman said. He said juveniles could use the phone system to make drug transactions or threaten people outside of the system.

John Howard brings a group of civilians to observe the juvenile detention about four times a year, Young said.

"We try to improve conditions for inmates and we also work with the correction system's administrators," Young said. "Because many of the problems with the inmates and the administrators are the same."

As an example, Young recounted an incident where a prisoner complained about his prison area being filthy, but the warden complained about having problems getting enough disinfectant into the prison to mop the place down."

 The other main grievance outlined in the juvenile detention report is a shortage of staff.
Young said staff at a supervisor level was at a 50 percent shortfall.  He said 12 supervisors serve where there are 18 positions, and where there should be 24 positions. Among non-school and non-medical employees who have direct contact with children at the detention center, there is a shortfall of 86 staffers, or 22.9 percent, Young said.

The Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center currently has about 500 employees for approximately 400 youth between the ages of 11 to 16 (with some 17 and 18 year olds).

 Fairman said part of the problem with staffing is that there are nine different work shifts. He has recommended three or four work shifts for people who staff the detention center on a 24-hour seven days a week basis.

"So the shortage of staff is misleading," Fairman said. "We do need more supervisors. We have 12 vacancies and we are working to get those positions filled."

"You have to go through a systemic way of changing things," Fairman continued. "You have to look at your leadership and then start making changes. You explain changes of policy to staff, even if you have to sit down and talk to them."

 Fairman said Steele has allowed him to bring in the right people under him who have a strong commitment in seeing that the operations at the detention change.

 "But my number priority is to make sure that the kids are not abused," Fairman said. "Everybody here is getting judged by the actions of less than 10 percent of the staff."
 Young agrees that protecting youth has to be priority number one.

 "What we said in the report is that there is now new management, and there are some promising things going on under the new management," Young said. "We were really encouraged by some of the professionalism shown by the new management team.

 "But with that said, the current administration must reach down and change the structure of the line level (employees)."

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