Juvenile center chief vows change
Friday, September 16, 2005
by Jeff Coen
Under questioning by county commissioners Thursday, leaders of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center acknowledged past problems at the facility--including the abuse of residents--and promised changes.
Members of a Cook County Board committee voted to have a foundation that specializes in the care of disadvantaged children review center operations. But first, they asked Supt. Jerry Robinson and Cook County Public Safety Director J.W. Fairman to respond to allegations of rampant mismanagement.
Commissioners wanted to know about instances of staff members abusing residents, whether those instances are underreported and whether some staff members have criminal records or are unqualified. Robinson and Fairman also were asked to respond to apparent overtime abuses and to comment on whether juveniles at the facility are "warehoused" in dirty conditions.
Both said they can't change what has happened but promised that changes are on the way that will improve the center, where 450 juveniles are housed.
Robinson said staff member evaluations are under way.
"Every single individual" will be reviewed, Robinson said, from janitors to supervisors, and those who are found to be unqualified for their jobs will be removed from them.
Fairman said the center could require counselors to have a bachelor's degree, a step up from the current requirement of two years of college.
As for the abuse allegations, Fairman said, there have been incidents that were not reported to those monitoring a memorandum of agreement reached in a federal lawsuit filed against the county and the facility.
"Let there be no doubt there were some people out there who were beating up on kids," he said. Later, he added: "I can't go back and wipe out what has happened in the past."
Robinson said he has fired two staff members over abuse since June. In the year to date, officials said, there have been 14 terminations in disciplinary cases and 17 suspensions.
One woman conducting counseling sessions for girls at the center testified that she has continued to see problems.
"Staff instigating fights between girls, unprofessional attempts to resolve fights," Wenona Thompson said. "At times, I observed myself physically and mentally having to struggle against staff intimidation and alienation."
Commissioners voted to have the Annie E. Casey Foundation conduct a management review at no cost to address staffing questions and resident grievance procedures and to consider improvements that will "be a further step in restoring professionalism, accountability and sound fiscal management."
Foundation officials contacted the county amid news reports of problems at the center, where they had supported reform efforts in the early 1990s.
Robinson already has said he hopes to control overtime abuse with a new biometric system that will recognize employee fingerprints and log hours.