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A county warehouse for kids

Sunday, August 21, 2005
Chicago Tribune

The Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center is out of control.

Children languish there like warehoused animals, while millions of dollars are wasted on do-nothing jobs filled by unqualified workers and patronage stooges. The Center's mission statement envisions a "secure and caring environment with programs and structure that enhance ... personal development." Instead the kids live in filthy surroundings, with little guidance, under the supervision of workers whose behaviors cheat the residents even more than they cheat Cook County taxpayers.

Once known as the Audy Home, the center is a quasi-jail for boys and girls ages 10 to 17, typically 450 of them at a time, who allegedly have committed crimes and are awaiting adjudication.

County officials claim they conduct nationwide criminal background checks on every Detention Center job applicant, including fingerprint analyses. "Anything from a quasi-criminal traffic offense up to a felony would disqualify [an applicant]," said James Whigham, chief of staff to Cook County Board President John Stroger.

They seem to have missed a few. A Chicago Tribune Editorial Board investigation has found that at least 7 percent--or 35 of the facility's roughly 480 employees--have criminal convictions. Those convictions include aggravated assaults, weapons violations, drug possession and dealing, domestic battery, burglary, theft, endangering the life or health of a child, armed violence and falsely impersonating a police officer.

There is no pretense that these are reformed ex-cons who now want to do the right thing by dedicating their lives to helping troubled children. These are people who have no business and virtually no experience working in secure facilities or around vulnerable kids. One supervisor fired in February for sexually harassing a female employee has since been arrested for attempted first-degree murder, and currently is in the process of trying to get his job back. Other juvenile counselors have been fired for hitting children in the center, then rehired months later.

"The kids' punishment should be their incarceration, not the conditions or the staff," said Cara Smith, a corrections specialist for Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan. "With no one watching or expressing outrage at the violations, the concern is that these kids are forgotten. They just languish, and we ensure them a spot in the criminal justice system down the road."

Elsewhere in Illinois, juvenile detention counselors are required to have college degrees. Not in Cook County. Here, they only need two years of college--or, better yet, a political connection.

"The inmates are running the asylum," said Cook County Commissioner Michael Quigley, who made two recent visits to the Center. "No one knows what to do there." Even those hired to monitor the facility miss the forest for the trees. The John Howard Association, official monitor for the Detention Center, focuses on cosmetic adjustments to policies and processes and unaggressive fiddling with management structures. No surprise, the association's paycheck comes from the very entity it is supposed to monitor.

Meanwhile, Detention Center employees sell pirated DVDs and CDs at work. One sells mattresses, with buyers instructed to pick them up from an obscure warehouse at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night. Another sells sharply discounted designer handbags out of his Detention Center locker. Workers report smelling marijuana being smoked by youths on the living units. One juvenile counselor confides she could easily smuggle in drugs--which someone evidently does.

County officials say they investigate every allegation of wrongdoing. "In the last six months, as a result of investigations, we've made nine suspensions, 10 terminations and four reprimands," Whigham said. "We don't like to fire people, but we don't hesitate to discharge anyone who's engaged in inappropriate conduct."

Parts of the facility at Roosevelt Road and Ogden Avenue are filthy. Anyone walking down the stairs to the gymnasium can reach down and scoop a fistful of dust and dirt, which has helped trigger kids' asthma attacks. Custodial workers refuse to clean these areas unless they are paid overtime, according to workers at the center. The kitchen area reeks like rotten meat.

With a $23 million annual budget, last year the center spent an astounding $4 million in overtime, and $6 million the year before. An Aug. 4 internal memo from the new superintendent, Jerry Robinson, instructs that yet more overtime be paid to five workers--including two counselors, a driver and a secretary--for cooking and cleaning up at a July 29 employee picnic.

Until Robinson arrived in June, the center was ineptly run by three acolytes of Cook County Board President John Stroger--one of Stroger's distant relatives, a Stroger political fundraiser, and a lifelong Stroger friend whose main qualification was that he taught driver's education.

The atmosphere at the center often resembles a cocktail party. Employees can be seen gathered in groups of five, six or seven, cackling and gossiping while youths are ignored. Many workers appear to have nothing to do. Some sit together most of the day, eating, chatting, listening to music, talking on cell phones or playing cards.

Minimal learning goes on in the attached Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School. During a Tribune visit Aug. 12, youths in the school watched movies or sauntered down the halls, often ignored by adults. One student watched "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" with his teacher while four other boys horsed around the classroom. A counselor there to provide order sat outside, oblivious, reading a book.

Meanwhile, kitchen workers were hauling trays of Detention Center food across the street to a "Lawndale Back to School Rally" hosted by a different county department for youths on probation--not the Detention Center kids.

The center was created in 1907 to intervene in the lives of wayward kids. The hope was that they would get the attention needed to rehabilitate their lives. It is the premise upon which the nation's system of juvenile justice, started in 1899 here in Cook County, rests. The center needs an immediate overhaul, a thorough scrubbing, and a reacquaintance with why its employees are there in the first place--to help troubled kids, not themselves.


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