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When patronage courts chaos

Wednesday, September 07, 2005
Chicago Tribune
Editorial

The Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center has spiraled into a wasteful, disorganized, abusive cesspool. The people who have run the place in recent years, the people largely responsible for creating a culture of ineptitude so profound it seeps into every corner of the center, have little or no experience for their lofty jobs.

But they do have one thing in common: a connection to John Stroger, the president of the Cook County Board. For example:

- Willie J. Ross was one of three assistant superintendents until he resigned in May amid allegations of misconduct. He was raised by the Stroger family in Arkansas and works as a precinct captain for Stroger. His salary was $91,181.

- Autrey Calloway was a driver's education teacher when he was promoted to be assistant superintendent over recreation. He is an 8th Ward precinct captain for Stroger and a longtime friend. Salary: $91,710.

- Sandra Jones spent most of her career as a juvenile probation officer before she was promoted to assistant superintendent for public safety. She said she is a distant relative of Stroger. Salary: $85,429.

- The new superintendent, Jerry Robinson, is a friend and former colleague of Stroger's chief of staff, James Whigham. Robinson, who was hired this summer, said he last worked as a deputy superintendent for the Chicago Police Department handling labor grievances. He came to the center with precious little experience working with youth or in corrections. He was chosen over several more qualified and experienced candidates, according to the John Howard Association and the American Civil Liberties Union. His salary is $124,371.

Up and down the Detention Center employee roster are more Stroger connections.

One security officer is the sister of state Rep. Marlow Colvin, whose family is close to the Strogers. Colvin was handed his legislative seat by the County Board president, replacing Stroger's son. The assistant deputy chief is the granddaughter of Bishop Arthur Brazier, the well-known pastor of the giant Apostolic Church of God and a longtime friend of Stroger's. The training supervisor is the daughter of University of Illinois at Chicago basketball coach Jimmy Collins, another Stroger friend. The list goes on.

They preside over an institution that is a dangerous, filthy, chaotic mess. It is an outrageously unprofessional operation.

It has been plagued by complaints of sexual harassment by staff members, as detailed by internal memos provided to the Tribune. In one case a newly hired counselor complained that she had been repeatedly cornered and groped in stairwells, closets and hallways by a supervisor. It took six months before any action was taken by officials at the center.

The counselor said that when she called Cook County Public Safety Director J.W. Fairman, the interim superintendent at the time, to request a shift change so she could avoid the supervisor, he hung up on her. Shortly after the supervisor was fired, the counselor asked Fairman for at least a security escort to her car. She said he hung up on her again.

Two months after he was fired, the supervisor, David Person, was arrested on charges of attempted murder and aggravated discharge of a firearm. Police and prosecutors said he fired shots into a window at his estranged wife's new home. As he awaits trial, Person is trying to get his job back at the center.

Complaints of misconduct have reached right to the top.

Willie Ross made sure everybody knew he had played pro football. Ross had a glass display case in the Detention Center lobby devoted to his glory days when he played a season with the Buffalo Bills. The display was only recently removed.

That might amount to no more than chutzpah. But Ross acknowledged that he was the subject of a number of misconduct investigations, including for sexual harassment.

He said the charges were bogus, but he was required to take a course in anger management. He resigned after an incident in which he allegedly intimidated nursing staffers into improperly handing over medical records of a boy in the center, according to former Medical Unit Director Jacqueline Moore. The boy had undergone emergency surgery that Ross approved, though it's disputed whether the surgery was medically unnecessary.

Ross, meanwhile, tried to get Calloway fired. In a memo written last December to Fairman, Ross said Calloway "should be removed as he keeps calling people [expletive] and has created a hostile work environment." No action was taken.

The infighting among the leaders of the center has been comical at times. Employees recalled hearing one exchange in which Ross yelled at Jones: "Your ass is too fat to fit into those pants!"

But the efforts to undermine each other have also had a serious impact on the facility. An attorney with the ACLU one day witnessed Jones, Calloway and Ross yelling at each other over whether to allow the attorney to interview kids at the center. "These surface-level tensions hint at the existence of deeper dysfunction at the JTDC," attorney Sarah Schriber wrote in a February 2004 letter to the Cook County state's attorney's office.

The operations of the center have been so poorly managed that no one can truly determine who is working at what times. Meanwhile, staffers put in for copious hours of overtime.

There used to be a time clock for workers, but it was shattered years ago and never fixed. During a June visit to the Detention Center by the Tribune, employees were observed signing in on seven different clipboards that sat unmonitored at an entrance table.

The center has nine different work shifts. Analysts for the John Howard Association, a court-appointed monitor for the center, found one employee who signed in at 8 a.m. one day and signed out two days later. That makes it very difficult to investigate incidents of staff abuse of kids. "You can't verify who is working on any given day," said Chip Coldren, president of the John Howard Association. The response from the leaders of the center? "This was brought up at a meeting, and supervisors were looking and pointing at each other like they were 3rd graders," Coldren said.

The clipboards have since been moved closer to a security desk, but the process remains so disorganized it's ripe for abuse.

That disorganization is costing taxpayers, who have had to foot the bill for some amazing claims for overtime pay for routine jobs in food, laundry and janitorial services. Food service workers received, on average, 20 percent above their annual salaries in overtime pay last year. Laundry workers made 34 percent above their salaries in overtime last year and 42 percent more in 2003. The supervisors of juvenile counselors took home 35 percent extra in overtime.

One janitor, Willie Streeter, was paid an annual salary of less than $32,000--but made more than $25,000 in overtime last year. A supervisor of the counselors, Kenneth J. Mays, was paid a regular salary of $58,000 last year--but made $42,000 more in overtime.

While the center does a fine job of inflating the pay for some workers, it undermines programs designed to help the teens there.

Wenona Thompson, a former resident of the Detention Center, runs a leadership development program for female residents called Girl Talk. Thompson said her weekly sessions are often canceled by administrators for frivolous reasons. When the sessions do take place, staffers sit in the back of the room, socialize loudly and insult the teens as she struggles to get them to open up about their lives and build self-esteem.

The Detention Center is plagued by drugs and other contraband that are smuggled in. "We think maybe half is coming from staff and half from friends and relatives of the kids," Assistant Deputy Chief Angela Bailey told the Medill News Service last year. Willie Ross acknowledged that not only are some of the youth inside the center in street gangs, some of the staff are too.

"But that's not the problem," he said in a recent interview with the Tribune. "The problem is when you take programs out and leave juveniles with nothing to do other than sitting on their units playing cards."

Some workers truly care about the kids. But their efforts are undermined by a work culture that punishes good intentions and rewards sloth. That culture starts with a host of administrators whose political connections are far stronger than their professional qualifications.

The Juvenile Detention Center should be more than a warehouse for kids and a playground for the adults who work there. If John Stroger won't demand better than that, the public must.



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