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Juvenile center staff face scrutiny

Thursday, August 18, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times
by A. SWEENEY, A. PALLASCH & S. PATTERSON

Criminal background checks have been ordered on all employees of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center amid recurring reports of abuse and other questionable conduct by staff members, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned. The order by newly installed Supt. Jerry Robinson to run the checks comes as the American Civil Liberties Union is considering returning to federal court because of reports that staff at the West Side center continue to manhandle children -- allegedly putting some in choke holds. A recent U.S. Justice Department study also found the center had the highest number of reported sexual misconduct incidents by staff in the nation. And according to court records, a counselor, who has since been fired, was charged in 1998 with attempted murder while working there. "I want to make sure the kids come into contact with people they can look up to,'' Robinson said in an interview this week. "If we find anyone . . . has a criminal background they didn't disclose, we will terminate them.'' Critics: not enough reforms On an average day, there are 450 residents under age 18 at the detention center -- once known as the Audy Home -- with about 6,000 passing through each year, Robinson said. The vast majority are boys, and most will stay about 25 days, awaiting trial on criminal charges at Juvenile Court. But those charged as adults who face trial at the Criminal Courts Building will be at the center -- basically a jail for minors -- six or seven months. There are basketball courts and baseball diamonds -- though not always usable balls -- and the residents attend school at the complex. While the concept of juvenile court was born in Cook County, the detention center has had a troubled history here, culminating in 1999 with a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of detainees alleging understaffing, overcrowding, poor health care and education, assaults and filthy conditions. Experts brought in by Cook County government, which runs the public facility, also found that "these conditions and practices had persisted for several years," with "gross mismanagement, inadequate resources and a deliberate refusal by Cook County officials to address the alleged problems." In 2002, detention center leaders signed a consent decree, agreeing to make changes. But interviews that law students conducted with dozens of detainees in recent months found few reforms were implemented, said the ACLU's Benjamin Wolf. Choke hold allegations "Health care is better, and the place is . . . cleaner," Wolf said. "But hiring the right staff, supervising them properly, managing children properly, they have not made much progress. I think there's a very real chance if we don't see much real progress in the next few months, we will be back in court." He added: "The settlement agreement prohibits use of choke hold. We continue to hear allegations that staff is using those. Not all staff, not even most staff, but some staff. Hitting children. You can just walk through there and hear a lot of the verbal abuse of children." Assistant State's Attorney Patrick Driscoll, the detention center's main attorney, was alarmed to hear detainees still were alleging abuse and said Wolf should turn over names of the accused counselors so the county can investigate. Slipped through cracks? One counselor who critics say should have been under greater scrutiny was Nathaniel Benisrael, 32, hired by the center in 1994. In 1998, he was charged, then acquitted, of attempted murder after witnesses identified him as the person who shot a man several times at 73rd and Oakley, court records show. His record also includes other arrests before -- and since -- his hiring. In April 2003, he was arrested for allegedly illegally possessing and discharging a handgun, striking someone in the leg, records show. In April 2004, Benisrael was arrested for allegedly verbally threatening another detention center employee, records show. Reached by phone, Benisrael said he has never been convicted of a crime, but he would not comment further. County officials wouldn't say why Benisrael was fired in May 2005. Jobs like Benisrael's cannot be held by anyone convicted of a felony or misdemeanor, Robinson said. Counselors also must pass a drug test. Employees arrested after being hired are required to disclose those troubles to supervisors. "We definitely do not want anybody here who is using narcotics or has been accused of a [crime] of a violent or sexual nature working around the kids,'' said Robinson, who rose to the rank of deputy superintendent in the Chicago Police Department. He started his current job two months ago. Robinson also is planning to better track abuse claims at the center in the wake of the Justice Department survey that showed the detention center had more sexual misconduct allegations against its staff -- with detainees as the victims -- than any other facility of its kind in the country.


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