What fresh eyes can see
Monday, December 03, 2007
A career spent fixing troubled juvenile facilities around the country didn't prepare Earl Dunlap for what he saw when he arrived in Cook County three months ago. That's when Dunlap, a national expert on juvenile detention, began cleaning house at the chaotic Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on Chicago's Southwest Side.
Dunlap thought the cleaning ordered by a federal judge would be figurative. No, the place literally needed a wash.
"It was filthy," Dunlap said during a tour of the center Wednesday. It had a staff of janitors and a private cleaning firm, yet graffiti marred the walls. Toilets were unscrubbed. Dust bunnies gathered in unmopped hallways. Toilet paper shrouded light fixtures. When some officials complained after Dunlap hired a new cleaning firm, he says he shot back: "Talk to the federal judge; I'm doing it."
Dunlap occasionally drops by the center unannounced in the middle of the night -- and finds counselors asleep. But try to write those staffers up for discipline, he said, and the slumberers simply retort, "Prove it." Security staff who would write up violations sometimes found their cars vandalized the next day, Dunlap said.
"There's no security technology that monitors staff here," Dunlap said. "The screens that security guards here watch have little to do with anything."
Staff members who were notorious for mistreating kids nonetheless had empty personnel files, Dunlap's staff said. That makes it harder to fire those who physically or sexually abuse kids. Two weeks ago, three staffers who had been found by outside agencies, such as the state Department of Children and Family Services, to have abused kids were allowed back on the job by a labor arbitrator.
Dunlap found that staffers routinely arrived at work dressed in tattered, unclean clothes and sweat pants. Others blatantly ignored security rules banning certain personal items -- such as knives and other weapons, pirated DVDs and cell phones -- beyond the facility's security checkpoints.
After wrangling unsuccessfully with Cook County's procurement bureaucracy, Dunlap dispatched a staffer to Target with a check to buy underwear for the roughly 400 kids inside the facility.
"This is without a doubt the most dysfunctional detention environment I've ever been in, and I've been in about 300 of them around the country," Dunlap said. "Anybody who thinks it will take less than two years [to fix it] is whistling up their elbow. You're talking about a facility that's terribly dysfunctional, unsafe and dangerous for kids."
Dunlap said he has focused first on making managers more accountable, developing a budget, cleaning the facility and getting rid of the most abusive staff. Longer-term, he said, the detention center should reduce its youth population by nearly half.
"Twenty percent of the kids today shouldn't be here," Dunlap said. More could be kept at home on electronic monitoring devices at a fraction of the cost. In many cases, they're in the juvenile center because authorities can't find a parent or guardian.
By state law, control of the detention center shifts from the Cook County Board to the head of Cook County courts in January. Some court administrators would like Dunlap to pack his bags on Jan. 1. They want to run the facility immediately. But the court doesn't yet have the capacity to run and reform such a troubled institution. Tim Evans, chief judge of the Circuit Court, should tell his eager beavers to step back.
Evans should be grateful to have an independent expert appointed by the federal court, someone with no interest in Cook County politics, to do the dirty work. He, and the federal court, should give Dunlap some time and space.