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Arts program urged at detention center

Tuesday, September 13, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times
by ABDON M. PALLASCH Staff Reporter

The plays and musicals that used to offer a creative outlet for boys at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center were cut last year.

"Some of these kids have never been on stage before and it's a great experience for them to see themselves on stage in a positive light and not a negative light," said choreographer Cheri Green. "It really did increase their positive behavior once they went back into the neighborhood. It really helped to build their self-esteem."

The musicals and plays for the 10- to 17-year-old boys awaiting hearings on charges of theft, drug-dealing and more serious crimes were banished during a clash between Public Safety Director J.W. Fairman and Assistant Supt. Willie Ross, who resigned in April.

Fairman said elimination of the program had nothing to do with politics or the clashes that led to Ross' resignation.

"There was no evaluation of the effectiveness of the program," Fairman said. If the groups are willing to re-submit proposals with documentation of the benefits, he would consider reinstating them.

Meade Palidofsky of Musical Theatre Workshop ran the project and still heads the "Fabulous Females" program that works with the small population of girls at the detention center.

Commissioners demand reforms

"It's crazy not to be doing things with these kids and engaging them," Palidofsky said. "Some of them have no self-image and teaching them how to do something, working hard, can be very life-changing. It's a shame to have kids like that sitting there with nothing to do."

Some County Board members are demanding Board President John Stroger clean house at the center following four Sun-Times stories about ACLU charges of choke-holds and other excessive discipline being used on detainees; disproportionate numbers of employees living in Stroger's 8th Ward; high-paid managers having political or family ties to Stroger; counselors with criminal charges; excessive overtime, and charges of employees stealing food intended for the kids. Other media have chimed in with editorials.

Stroger's board allies last week buried a proposal for an independent audit of the center but commissioners set a public hearing on the center for Thursday.

Fairman said he's concerned about spending taxpayers' money on the plays but Ross and Palidofsky said they cost taxpayers next to nothing in all but two years since they started in 1990 because of grants secured from the Illinois Arts Council and other sources. Ross brought in mentoring programs with the University of Illinois at Chicago, Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College and other colleges, he said.

"There used to be a lot of programs there" Palidofsky said. "I think the only things there now are the religious programs."

'The politics of the place'

Green and Palidofsky said they'd love to come back and they hope the new director of the center, Jerry Robinson, invites them. Palidofsky now concentrates her efforts at the State Youth Center in Warrenville, which she said is more professionally run.

"It's not the kids that are hard to work with [at the JTDC] -- the kids are a joy to work with -- but the politics of the place, the adults are what makes it challenging there," Palidofsky said. "There are some excellent staff people who work very hard with the kids. But there is no leadership at the top. Out in Warrenville, we're very well supported there. We don't have to worry about the adults."

Lourdes Torres, 21, served time at the JTDC in 2001 and said the dance and theater programs helped her turn her life around.

"I never saw myself in a dress. Never," she said. "I transformed in there with their help. It helped me express my anger through dancing. I didn't know I could dance. I didn't know I had a talent to write or to perform."

Palidofsky and others concede Ross was controversial and could be a challenge to work with. But even Stroger, his former mentor with whom he has had a falling out, said, "He was good with the kids -- he brought in people who talked with the kids."

Like some other center executives, Ross got his job through his friendship with Stroger's family. He was from Stroger's hometown of Helena, Ark. He was an All-American football player at the University of Nebraska who played two years with the Buffalo Bills, then worked as youth coordinator for the mayor of Norfolk, Va., before coming to Chicago.

Generous overtime at center

Among his tasks was to bring down the overtime, which was about $5 million -- about a fifth of the center's budget. A $55,000-a-year counselor boosted his salary to $101,000 in 2003 with overtime. Dozens of employees nearly doubled their salaries with overtime in 2003 and 2004, according to documents obtained by the Sun-Times.

Ross told managers at the center they were not eligible for overtime and he cut them off.

That got some people angry, Ross said. Over the next year and a half, they launched five internal investigations against him. They asked Palidofsky and other program leaders if they gave Ross "kickbacks." None of those charges were sustained, Fairman said. The county settled a sex harassment suit against Ross over his objection. Ross called it a "he said-she said."

Stroger's chief of staff, James Whigham, said Ross was one of a team charged with bringing down overtime costs.

"Had it not been for the help of Assistant Supt. Ross, overtime at the JTDC would be at least 15-20 percent higher," Fairman wrote in a memo to Stroger obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Stroger said he did not know anything about the plays being cut.

Some programs remain at the center and Fairman is open to new ones, he said.

This past weekend, a minister brought in "Weekend of Champions," in which athletes talked to detainees. Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley said he's putting up $5,000 of his own money to bring in the Joel Hall Dance Center to work with the detainees.



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