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Cook County juvenile facility severely understaffed, leader says
Employees sometimes find themselves alone in a unit, and as a result, children are often confined to their rooms, let out only to shower, officials say

Sunday, April 06, 2008
Chicago Tribune
by Ofelia Casillas

Almost half of the roughly 560 positions at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center are vacant or inconsistently filled as the number of residents keeps rising, conditions that have become barriers to federally mandated reforms, the facility's leader said.

Earl Dunlap, who was appointed transitional administrator by a federal judge in August, said last week that since January, staff members have used 715 sick days.

An additional 45 employees have asked for paid leave for injuries suffered on duty. About half have been given the leave while the others are pending.

"It's absolutely obscene, particularly when we are seeing a steady increase in the population at the facility," Dunlap said.

Dunlap said he has been requesting since November that county officials post and fill vacant positions at the detention center, an urgent call that has met with delays.

"At every turn I have been prohibited from doing what I need to do, not based on a blatant, 'You can't do that,' but, 'Let me go back and think about it,' and nobody ever comes up with anything. I call it the art of deflection," he said.

With insufficient staffing, employees sometimes find themselves alone in a unit. As a result, children are often confined to their rooms, let out only to shower, officials said.

The shortages contributed to violent incidents at the facility, Dunlap said, including a melee in February during a school program in the chapel. After that, Dunlap ordered that residents be educated in their units instead of at the facility school.

Dunlap has been trying to make due by mandating overtime, a condition allowed for in staff contracts. But because some staff members invoke the county's family leave policy, which allows them to be exempt from overtime, Dunlap said the brunt often falls on the same few employees, who then get burned out.

Dunlap said he has 175 staff vacancies—128 of which are new positions in the 2008 budget, approved in February. He said he has made only two hires since September.

He has 17 employees on leave of absence, two on military leave and 75 on some form of family leave that either allows them to be out of work or on a limited schedule. He has 17 staff members on paid leave after they were hurt on duty.

"You cannot function the way we are currently staffed," Dunlap said.

Eugene Mullins, spokesman for
Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, said he blames Dunlap and his administrators.

"Part of the problem has been a failure of their staff to provide the human resources director with current job descriptions. You have to get approval of the job descriptions before you can post the job," Mullins said.

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