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Cleansing a warehouse for kids

Sunday, September 18, 2005
Chicago Tribune

It's a tough job working at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. You have to deal every day with deeply troubled youths, nearly all of whom are experiencing a profound life crisis. Most of them have diagnosed mental disorders, ranging from depression to psychosis. A majority of them are never visited by a family member.

Your job is to protect them from harming themselves, to protect them from harming each other and to protect yourself. Most important, you act as a role model and counselor, actively trying to straighten out lives. This takes experience. It takes optimism about kids. It takes integrity. It takes a vision for how detention might be used to benefit kids in the long run.

By experience, we don't mean experience waving a gun in someone's face and getting convicted for the unlawful use of a weapon. We don't mean getting convicted for striking a wife in the head with a crutch and pushing her to the ground. We don't mean resisting arrest on battery charges. We don't mean experience on the other side of a jail cell door.

But those are examples of the real-life experience of some of the workers at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

- - -

In the Juvenile Injustice series, the Tribune has detailed that at least 7 percent of the employees at the center have some kind of criminal conviction. Many more have arrest records. Many got their jobs not through their qualifications, but through their political connections.

The series has documented other problems at the center, ranging from the mistreatment of kids to filthy conditions to rampant and unnecessary overtime pay that costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year. These revelations have drawn a reaction of sorts.

Detention Center employees last week scrubbed down the center and sprayed lemon air freshener in advance of a Tuesday visit by reporters to prove that the place actually sparkles. At a County Board hearing Thursday devoted to discussing problems at the center, administrators admitted to problems--but ultimately gave a lemony fresh presentation about how they'll all be fixed soon.

Supt. Jerry Robinson and County Public Safety Director J.W. Fairman promised a review of every employee's qualifications. Staff will be required to report any arrest--if they don't they'll be fired. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which specializes in helping troubled children, will be allowed to review the center's operations.

These are fine, as far as they go. But they don't even break the surface of a more fundamental problem shrouding the center: a culture that puts adults before children and connections before qualifications.

The people who should be most attuned to the problems barely recognize they exist.

"As bad as things might look," said Commissioner Bobbie Steele, "they're better than they were when I came in here 19 years ago."

So what? Children currently warehoused in the Detention Center are supposed to be grateful for that?

Not one person in leadership at the center, and certainly not Cook County Board President John Stroger, has a clue about what a well-run facility could do, or should look like. They don't understand that a detention facility can be far more than a military-style holding pen.

The average stay at the center is a month, but many kids are there for far longer. That's a long time in a child's life, certainly long enough to intervene and provide meaningful therapy, rather than superficial risk assessments and an hour of basketball each day.

- - -

Missouri officials had a vision for their juvenile corrections system. Years ago they set out to transform it, establishing small, neighborhood-based facilities in place of large institutions. Today they hire people who are enthusiastic about youth and are experienced in therapeutic counseling techniques. They focus on developing self-esteem and life skills in the kids and emphasize a caring and open culture of rules and structure. They welcome visitors--from judges, politicians and reporters to corrections officials from across the country--and encourage them to talk to youth and to staff, unlike in Cook County.

The number of children who return to the system has dropped dramatically, and is far below the recidivism rate here. Missouri provides hope and transforms lives. Cook County merely greases the skids toward adult prison.

There are answers for Cook County.

- Control of the center should be moved from the Cook County Board to the chief judge of the circuit court, which is the structure for every other juvenile detention center in the state.

- An independent agent should be established to control hiring at the center, similar to what the City of Chicago has been forced to do. That's about the only hope to replace political hires with professionals.

- Detention Center authorities should create smaller satellite facilities, which would get away from the vast size of the center and provide a more personal and controlled atmosphere for the kids.

"You don't always need razor wire and bars," said Jeffrey Butts, a national juvenile detention expert and research fellow at the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago. "If you have a well-run program that provides good staff security, the use of physical restraints shrinks to almost nothing."

At Thursday's hearing, Cook County Public Defender Edwin Burnette spoke about a lack of vision in juvenile justice. He referred to the failings of his own office, but hinted that it applied to the Detention Center as well.

Burnette took the unusual move of ordering an outside assessment of his office and releasing it to the public himself earlier this month. It was scathing. But Burnette argues that in order to get to his vision of how his office should be run, and how it should serve children, he needed an unvarnished look at where it stands today. "That is the responsibility of leadership," he said.

Missouri has what Detention Center officials haven't yet recognized they need: a vision and the right kind of experience.

So stow the lemon air freshener. The Detention Center needs a professional cleansing.

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