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Dickens 2001

Our juvenile facilities resemble a Victorian slum. How much more of this will L.A. County tolerate?

February 18, 2001

Reporting on the county's juvenile facilities last June, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury concluded that the Eastlake Central Juvenile Hall "can best be described as falling apart." Its newest facility is 60 years old.

Things are no better at Camp Scobee in Lancaster, which serves a large number of mentally challenged youths. Grand jury investigators found that the "restrooms and barracks had urine and dirty clothing all over the floors. There were extreme amounts of graffiti, filth was abundant and it appeared there was little or no discipline."

MacLaren Hall, the county's shelter for neglected and abused children, is a crowded, chaotic and sometimes violent place. During several months last year, police were summoned almost twice a day on average.

Throughout the county's juvenile custody system, children are drugged with adult psychotropic medications rather than given the more therapeutic mental health services they badly need.

How much worse must conditions get before Los Angeles County improves the way it treats the more than 50,000 children in its care? It's downright shameful.

The U.S. Justice Department recently launched a formal investigation into whether the medical, mental health and educational programs and the living conditions in the county's juvenile detention facilities violate federal civil rights guarantees. These programs are substandard or even nonexistent. A children's advocacy group has filed a suit aimed at improving county shelters, such as the county's MacLaren Children's Center, where children await foster placement.

Earlier this month, two local judges, in unusually harsh language, castigated county government leaders for not providing mentally and emotionally troubled children with anything even resembling adequate care. Years of frustration no doubt prompted the stinging remarks from Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Terry Friedman and Mental Health Court Supervising Judge Harold Shabo. Speaking to a group of county officials and activists, Friedman described the juvenile hall facilities as "fraught with danger." Shabo was equally blunt. Foster kids with disabilities "act out in ways that lead to their removal from the system," he said. Then "the child is labeled a 'placement failure' when it's the system's failure."

Local officials are discussing plans for a first-of-its-kind delinquency mental health court, consolidating a variety of social services in one courthouse and enabling a judge to hold several agencies accountable for the care of a child's underlying mental disorder. State juvenile justice funds in this year's budget could make a pilot court a reality. But the problem is more widespread and urgent than one court, no matter how innovative, can address.

Projects to redesign such Dickensian facilities as MacLaren Hall should be fast-tracked, and the county should redouble efforts to contract with private, nonprofit facilities that can provide a more homelike environment. Finally, the county-run schools inside juvenile facilities are woeful. Too many teachers are uncredentialed, too few special education services are provided, the staff is demoralized and administrative oversight is lacking. The county board of education and the supervisors need to step in.

Unless there is improvement, Los Angeles County could end up with a federal consent decree governing county juvenile services--on top of the ones now governing the county jail and the city Police Department. We must do a better job before the county's child protective system turns more neglected kids into incorrigibles, and before more delinquents mature into criminals or end up homeless on the streets.

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