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Court receiver sought to run juvenile center

Thursday, May 31, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Ofelia Casillas

Frustrated by a lack of improvement at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, advocates have asked a federal judge to give some control of the facility to an independent authority.

Citing fresh allegations of abuse, staff shortages and insufficient mental-health services, Northwestern University law professor Thomas Geraghty, appointed by Judge John Nordberg in 1999 to represent the center's residents, asked Nordberg Tuesday to appoint a receiver to operate the center and implement reforms.
"Things are getting worse. It's time to step in to make sure the center is managed properly," said Geraghty, director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at the Northwestern University School of Law. "We have made a very effective case for having a receiver appointed. It's a no-brainer as far as I'm concerned."

In court papers, Geraghty cited an alarming risk of suicide, a climate of fear "fraught with staff and resident violence" and inadequate medical services. Geraghty also noted a "culture of chaos and incompetence."

"This case has reached a crossroads," Geraghty wrote. "It is now clear that, so long as the defendants remain in control, little will change."

The request by Geraghty comes eight years after the American Civil Liberties Union sued Cook County officials, citing unsanitary and violent conditions at the facility.

In recent months, problems have been mounting, according to reports filed in court.

Brenda Welch, a court-appointed monitor at the facility, reported in March that staff members facing allegations of resident abuse had new complaints lodged against them, even after they received special training.

In one incident, Welch found, two residents were confined for more than 60 hours without any documentation as to why.

In another, 12 residents were confined to their rooms beyond the 36-hour limit.

In Welch's April report, she said mental-health staffing was less than half the minimum required by a court plan.

In a letter to the court this month, Welch said the facility superintendent, J.W. Fairman, was "noticeably absent." Fairman later resigned. Robert Catchings, a former assistant superintendent with 20 years of juvenile-justice experience, is the acting superintendent, a county official said.

Key positions eliminated

Welch also said key positions had been eliminated. "Given the significant decrease in administrative and mid-level staff, it is my opinion that progress will be limited," she added.

In a written statement Wednesday, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger said improving the center is "a top priority." He said the ACLU's allegations "do not reflect the current state of affairs."

"In the last five months, the administration has worked to foster a renewed commitment to providing appropriate care and oversight for the residents and to ensure their well-being," Stroger said.

Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago), a frequent critic of Stroger and former candidate for County Board president, said the proposed receiver opens the door to new leadership, a "step long overdue."

'We need court intervention'

"We need court intervention, and we need someone who's going to actually fire the staff there and bring in the professionals that are going to turn the center around," Claypool said.

The state legislature recently approved a proposal to shift oversight of the facility from the County Board to the county's chief judge.

The legislation, however, leaves the ultimate authority over purchasing and budgetary decisions with the County Board, according to the ACLU.

The ACLU supported that legislation but said Wednesday that the pending shift did not obviate the need for a receiver.

"We felt it was time," said Benjamin Wolf, an attorney with the ACLU. "Our clients are in urgent danger."

The motion will be heard by Nordberg at 2:30 p.m. Thursday.

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