Juvenile center reforms detailedWide-ranging plan covers changes that experts have sought
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
by Mickey Ciokajlo
Teens housed at the troubled Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center would receive better medical and mental health care under a comprehensive and detailed set of reforms released Monday.
The wide-ranging, 129-page agreement codifies many changes activists and experts have demanded, while detailing how Cook County will satisfy a court agreement reached last year with the American Civil Liberties Union.
The plan calls for staff members to write a report about any incident that jeopardizes the safety of staffers or residents by the end of that shift and for copies to be provided to county officials, parents or guardians, and attorneys within 24 hours.
The county will provide and launder residents' underwear. Rooms with plumbing problems must be closed. Even the type of food carts used and the color of paint on wood trim are detailed in the document.
Under the plan, a court-appointed official will have full access to the facility--a point of some contention in recent months.
Months in the making, the plan is set to take effect Monday with the last of the called-for reforms to be implemented within six months.
The county and the ACLU have been in and out of federal court for years over a lawsuit the organization brought in 1999 alleging poor treatment of the children in the facility.
Last year, a federal judge appointed a compliance administrator and ordered a group of experts to devise a plan for improving the facility.
"I think it provides a road map for the steps the county has to take to finally provide safe conditions and adequate health and mental health services for the children at the facility," said Benjamin Wolf, an ACLU lawyer. "The key will be implementing it."
Steve Mayberry, spokesman for County Board President Todd Stroger, said the administration "embraces" the plan "and thanks the monitors for creating a comprehensive document."
"The many guidelines and recommendations include some steps that are already under way, in keeping with our mission of establishing a safe and clean environment while the young people are in residential custody," Mayberry said.
Since she was appointed last year by U.S. District Judge John Nordberg, compliance administrator Brenda Welch has filed some scathing reports to the court detailing failings by the county. They have included safety and hygiene problems as well as a move by the county to limit her access to information.
County officials denied some of Welch's characterizations and said they have cooperated with her.
In a cover letter to the plan issued Monday, court-appointed monitors Charles Fasano and Michael Mahoney made it clear that Welch needs "virtually unimpeded access" to the facility.
"Her role as specified ... requires a high level of communication and cooperation," Fasano and Mahoney wrote. "Her duties, therefore, cannot be performed with limitations on her activities, including access to the facility and staff, or with information that is limited in scope or not timely."
One of the plan's most significant changes will bring new leadership for medical and mental health services, Wolf said.
In October, former County Board President Bobbie Steele announced that the center's medical personnel would be placed under the control of the Bureau of Health Services.
The plan will require the county to spend more money in 2007 on mental health services in particular, although a hard estimate was not detailed.
Fasano, who is also the court-appointed monitor in a separate lawsuit involving the county jail, said the extra funds needed would not be close to what has been required by the sheriff in recent years for the hiring of hundreds of additional correctional officers.
However, the plan governing the juvenile center comes at a time when Stroger is directing all department heads to cut spending by 17 percent.
"They're not going to be able to cut here," Fasano said. "If they do, they're on a road to disaster."
Mayberry said officials were working to reduce the $22 million budget "in a manner that will bring efficiency and cost savings without negatively affecting the detention center's operations."
Wolf said the plan would also bring about changes to management practices.
Under the heading "discipline confinement," the plan requires that one hour of exercise outside of children's rooms be incorporated into disciplinary policies.
Another section mandates that each youth "will be provided with soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper, and towels."
Wolf said the ACLU has been frustrated by the pace of progress at the center. He said the plan gives the ACLU a tool to push the county toward compliance.
"This plan now gives us a structure to go over the rough terrain that lies ahead for the next several months," Wolf said. "I know they're having a tough budget, but these children are entitled to adequate care."