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'Cesspool' of mismanagement cited in audit of juvenile center
Report finds 'no financial controls' at detention facility

Thursday, May 10, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Ofelia Casillas

Unpaid bills, poor bookkeeping and untracked absenteeism all contributed to deteriorating conditions at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, according to an audit released Wednesday.

The audit, conducted by the county auditor beginning in February, found that the staff at the beleaguered center sometimes ordered food without knowing whether there was money to pay for it -- at one point there were $500,000 in unpaid food bills. Cash that was held for teenage residents at the center and never reclaimed became mixed with money for expenses. Employee attendance was tracked only sporadically.
"The overall theme of the report would be that there are no financial controls, and, where they did have policies and procedures, they were not widely distributed and followed," Cook County Auditor Laura Burman said at a news conference Wednesday.

"Therefore there was no accountability."

The lack of financial policies also could have led to "possible financial irregularities," Burman said.

In response to the audit, officials announced that Jennifer Koehler, a senior policy adviser to Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, has been dispatched as a full-time senior administrator to oversee reforms at the facility as it tries to comply with a federal plan.

The audit comes during a superintendent search for the center, which has been the subject of ongoing federal litigation and repeated findings of violent, unhealthy and unsanitary conditions.

"The absence of financial controls is a symptom of a larger problem -- that the facility has failed to provide the leadership, oversight, accountability and consistency that is essential to creating an environment of safety and adequate services for the children," said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Benjamin Wolf.

Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago), a frequent Stroger critic and former candidate for County Board president, said Stroger is learning now what others have known for years.

"The detention center is a cesspool of financial mismanagement and physical abuse. This place has been a patronage dumping ground for years and continues to be under his leadership," Claypool said. "The only thing that is going to change the situation is if Todd Stroger puts in charge a person who is independent of politics and is qualified to reform that institution, and so far he has been unwilling to do that."

The audit recommended that procedures be developed to address purchasing, inventory control, petty cash and overtime.

A protocol also is needed for monitoring supplies, it said. Procedures should define what items can be purchased with petty cash, the audit suggested.

Instead of automatically granting overtime to fill vacancies, supervisors should look at how many residents are at the center and find the ideal number of staff members to supervise them, the report found.

Stroger said the audit was an important part of moving forward reforms at the center.

"While the results show that we have a lot of work to do, this audit represents the beginning of the end of a status quo culture that has existed for too long at the [center]," he said.

In March, Stroger testified in favor of legislation that would formally authorize Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans to replace county government as overseer of the facility. The state House bill could go for a vote before the full state Senate as early as this week, according to county officials, and will then go before Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

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