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Juvenile detention center stalwart stepping down
Longtime employee has reputation as problem solver — and some shoes named after him

Friday, February 19, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Ofelia Casillas

Oldaker \ol-de-ker\ n

1: sneaker issued inside the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center 2: Ronald Oldaker, employee since 1973.

Detention center residents have long called their county-issued white sneakers "Oldakers," but it's unlikely they know that the shoes are named for a veteran employee who handed them out decades ago when no other caseworkers would.

The utilitarian shoes are a perfect metaphor for Ronald Oldaker, a low-key problem solver and red-tape-eradicator who is considered by many to be the center's unsung hero, a consistent advocate through eras of turmoil and mismanagement.

Now, Oldaker, who has risen to director of the resident advocacy unit, said he is planning to retire at the end of the year.

"Anytime we have a problem with the detention center, he's my go-to guy. If he can't answer it, there's no answer to the problem," said Juvenile Court Judge Terrence Sharkey. "Cook County will take a big hit when he leaves. They can replace him with a body. But I don't know that they are going to replace him."

"Oh, no, no, no," said Linda Utall, chief of the juvenile justice division in the Cook County public defender's office, when told of Oldaker's retirement plans. "We need him."

That anyone could rise to hero status amid the years of violence, chaos and court-intervention at the beleaguered facility is remarkable.

But over almost four decades, the 62-year-old evolved into just that for lawyers, judges, parents and administrators — not to mention kids — who need help in navigating the county bureaucracy to fix a problem, whether it is finding a kid's coat or locating a parent to take a child home.

Oldaker, originally from Indiana, has silver-white hair, rosy skin and punctuates many of his sentences with "and such forth." He lives in Calumet City with two of his five adopted sons; he never married.

Emblematic of his humility: Oldaker's name is misspelled on his county e-mail address, but he's never gone through the trouble of changing it.

On a recent afternoon, Oldaker wore a navy blazer as he met with residents who had filed grievances about staff treatment on the detention center's living units.

Oldaker read from the grievance. "You wrote down staff told you a lie…You felt offended," he said to a teen boy from unit 5F. Before meeting with him, Oldaker had spoken to supervisors about the complaint. They in turn, spoke to the staff.

"They shouldn't lie to get you to do something," Oldaker said. The boy signed the grievance, closing the case.

"All right," Oldaker said. "Take it easy."

That same day on that unit, Oldaker sneakers were lined up outside the kids' rooms because they are required to take them off before they enter, Oldaker said. They're less likely to kick their doors if they're shoeless..

Oldaker said he handed out the shoes, among his other duties, from the mid-1970s to about 2000. Staff members slowly went from saying "we need Oldaker" when they needed the sneakers to "we need Oldakers." The name stuck.

Now, when he calls a unit to resolve a problem and identifies himself, a new staff member on the other end of the call inevitably responds: "Like the sneakers?"

Walking the halls, Oldaker said the kids in the facility are tougher today than when he started in 1973, due to new probation screening practices as well as diversion programs like electronic monitoring and home confinement. Oldaker said these changes have kept out the younger petty thieves and runaways, leaving the older, more violent, repeat offenders. .

As Oldaker stopped by the intake unit, a boy said he was being released to Downstate authorities.

"What are you on probation for?" Oldaker asked.

"Residential burglary," the boy answered.

"Good luck," Oldaker told him.

David Lux, a retiree who worked three decades at the detention center, said one of Oldaker's greatest qualities is that he doesn't mince words.

"He was always more concerned with getting the job done than making it sound pretty," Lux said. "He doesn't have high philosophical justifications. … People take care of people, and these are people that need someone to take care of them."

Lux said juvenile court officials will feel the loss when they can no longer call Oldaker.

"He'll tell you what happened or he'll find the kid's coat… ‘Where are those shoes the mom brought?' Call Oldaker and see if he can find them. And he does," Lux said.

Such traits added stability during times when fights and chaos defined the facility. Problems came to a head in 1999 when the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against Cook County officials, citing violence and unsanitary conditions. Eventually, the facility was handed over to the Cook County Circuit Court to oversee.

"We were understaffed, overcrowded, the staff themselves not trained," Oldaker said.

Benjamin Wolf, an ACLU attorney, said through it all, Oldaker remained consistent.

"I certainly have always had a positive impression of the work that he does," Wolf said.

Through numerous superintendents, Oldaker moved up from line staff to caseworker and supervisor to administratorwhere he remained for 15 years until 2007, when a transitional administrator, Earl Dunlap, was appointed by a federal court judge to make changes.

Dunlap promoted Oldaker. And his sense of history and dedication came in handy as Dunlap began to make improvements, such as breaking up large groups of kids into smaller, more manageable units and training some staff members while firing others.

"He probably knows more about every single kid in this building and every single kid that has come through this building than anybody in Cook County," Dunlap said. "He's been here through the peaks and valleys, and there have been more valleys than peaks."

Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris said his lawyers have had positive interactions with Oldaker when they need help with detention center residents who are wards of state. Harris said Oldaker is an "unsung hero."

"If you want something done, that's the guy you call," Harris said. "The man behind the curtain, like Oz."

Most of Oldaker's days are spent solving problems by phone in his cluttered office. When asked why people rely on him so much, Oldaker replies that it's just because he's accessible.

"I answer my phone. I return calls. Something is brought to you, you want to see if you can find a solution," he said. "Once you've got that reputation, people come back for more."

Oldaker assumes most of the kids and parents are good, even though some aren't.

"I treat them the way I would want my children to be treated," he said.

He stayed at the center so long, he said, because "I fulfilled a need."

Then, he added, "It fulfilled me."

ocasillas@tribune.com


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