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Juvenile detention staffers face crackdown
JUVENILE CENTER | Troublesome staffers face crackdown amid death threats, abuses

Saturday, July 04, 2009
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

Death threats, vandalism and unrest are expected to climb along with the mercury this summer at Cook County's juvenile detention center.

And that's just among the staff.

Tensions have simmered to a full boil as Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center bosses crack down on employee abuse of sick time and family leave -- and investigate employee abuse of the 10- to 16-year-old inmates.

"I anticipate this summer is going to be a very rocky time for the JTDC," Earl Dunlap, head of the detention center, told Cook County commissioners at a May meeting. "There have already been some people who have set an agenda to get some people and have done some damage to some vehicles and made some other personal threats, including some death threats that I received."

Dunlap, appointed to his position by a federal judge, said the FBI is investigating a handwritten death threat that was slid under the door of his office at the center at 1100 S. Hamilton.

In other instances, employees are suspected of slashing tires and smashing windows of fellow employees' cars in apparent retaliation for turning them in for job performance problems, Dunlap told the Chicago Sun-Times in recent weeks.

These are the same employees charged with the day-to-day supervision of troubled children awaiting trial, sentencing or transfer to a juvenile prison.

A spokesman for Teamsters Union Local 714, which represents the workers, did not return calls for comment.

"It's supposed to be a holding area for kids until they get services, and they go to [a youth prison] or they go home on probation. I would never expect employees, of any government body, to be acting like thugs," said Cook County Public Guardian Robert F. Harris, who oversees 7,000 wards of the state -- some of whom pass through the JTDC.

A decade ago, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in federal court for improved inmate conditions -- better food, better health care -- and today's higher staffing standards at the center are the result of either court orders or Dunlap.

For years, insiders say, the JTDC was a warehouse for patronage hires -- not experts in dealing with children winding their way through the juvenile court system.

"There are some people -- not all -- who depend on that place not working very well so they can have jobs and not work very hard," said ACLU attorney Benjamin Wolf.

While a core of JTDC veteran staff and a series of new hires are changing the working environment, a small group of "bad apples" are making life difficult at the center, Dunlap said.

He sees the backlash as part of a larger cultural shift at the detention center, which has an annual budget of $40 million.

In recent years, governance of the 500-bed facility changed from the County Board president to Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Tim Evans after a change in state law.

One of the new requirements for holding a job in the Circuit Court system is a college diploma. Currently, 70 percent of the 500 staff members don't have a degree, Dunlap said.

That, coupled with stricter enforcement of work rules, has left some employees feeling under siege.

"A lot of them face layoffs, but a lot of them can't behave themselves," Dunlap told the Sun-Times.

Employees have been accused of smuggling cell phones, cigarettes and dope to the inmates, Dunlap said. He also alleges that some staff have gotten back at a mouthy inmate by having another juvenile detainee attack the child.

And some detention center staffers have been accused of attacking inmates themselves.

In 2008, 113 abuse investigations were launched. The majority involved physical abuse. About 12 percent were substantiated.

So far in 2009, about 55 such investigations are under way.

In addition, the FBI and the Cook County state's attorney's office are conducting separate investigations into employee "time theft,'' Dunlap said.

"We'll get a substantial number of 'call offs' from work, which results in having to lock the kids up because there's no staff there,'' Dunlap said. The kids are locked in their individual rooms.

Between 47 percent and 50 percent of workers call off on Sundays, 43 percent on Saturdays and around 35 percent on Fridays, he said.

Dunlap blames lax former bosses for the problems with some staff, but stresses that there is a core of veterans who work well with the children, and new hires, too, who are changing how the JTDC does business.

As bad as it's going to get now, "it will get better," he said.

"What's at stake is the welfare of the kids in this facility. ... If we're going to have any impact whatsoever, we have to at a minimum ... have good people in this environment," Dunlap said.



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