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Visitors to juvenile hall feel stuck too

Between drug screenings and having to wait hours outdoors, relatives of locked-up youths serve their own kind of time.

August 27, 2007|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

On a typical Sunday morning in an industrial patch of the northern San Fernando Valley, a couple of dozen mothers and fathers huddle together a few hours after sunrise.

Armed with camp chairs, snacks and magazines, the early-bird crowd, eager to visit their sons and daughters at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, must hurry up and wait. Visiting hours don't begin until 1 p.m., but regulars know that a better spot in line means more time inside. Those whose youngsters have been incarcerated for months on end murmur greetings to familiar faces.

By the time they set foot in the 28-acre compound of brick buildings, these relatives will have spent hours outdoors, baking in the heat or soaking in the occasional rain. They'll have complied with a strict dress code that bans sandals and shorts and will have undergone screenings for weapons and drugs.

The crowd is mostly moms and dads, because other relatives need court or Probation Department permission to visit.

To many parents and juvenile-justice experts, the weekly anxiety-fraught ritual is emblematic of persistent problems with the Los Angeles County system charged with overseeing thousands of young offenders. The juvenile halls are now under federal orders to reform.

County Probation Department officials, although acknowledging shortcomings, say they are hamstrung by crowded conditions -- there is no space for a waiting room at Nidorf -- staff shortages and pressing security concerns.

"Let's face it: It's not pleasant," Chief Probation Officer Robert Taylor said. "It's a jail, basically."

Operating one of the largest juvenile detention systems in the nation, county probation officials supervise about 4,000 teenagers housed in three juvenile halls and 19 camps.

The average stay at the halls is about three weeks, although more serious youth offenders typically remain much longer while their cases move through adult court.

The department has labored to fix dozens of problems, including improving mental health care and reducing officers' use of force against youngsters, as mandated by Justice Department officials in 2004.

Federal regulators are in the process of evaluating the camps, and the department faces a chronic staffing shortage throughout its facilities.

California tends to incarcerate youth offenders more like adults, with an emphasis on confinement, not rehabilitation, said David Roush, a professor at Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice who has assessed hundreds of juvenile justice facilities across the country.

Roush and others also say juvenile justice systems across the nation tend to regard parents as part of the problem instead of seeing them as partners in the effort to turn around young offenders.

Sue Burrell, a staff attorney with the Youth Law Center, said parents complain that they "have to jump through a huge number of hoops to get to visit their children. It just seems like the families are damned if they do and damned if they don't."

Probation officials acknowledge that the clumped line of 100-plus relatives -- including elderly grandparents, fathers in wheelchairs and babies in strollers -- waiting outside Nidorf on any given Sunday is not ideal.

Similar conditions confront visitors at the other two juvenile halls, one east of downtown Los Angeles and the other in Downey.

Officials have said they hope to take steps to shelter visitors from the weather.

Although visiting hours are from 1 to 4 p.m., a short-handed probation staff must frequently shoo parents out early, sometimes after just an hour, to make room for other visitors.

"There's not enough room inside to accommodate all the parents who want to see their children," Taylor said, adding that, without the necessary space or staffing for a waiting area, "where else are we going to put them?"

"It's very uncomfortable," said Marco Lopez, 51, of Maywood, resting in a wheelchair parked in a cool spot at Nidorf one Sunday while his 8-year-old daughter, Sulema, skipped rope. "There's no space where we can gather."

To some parents, even more infuriating than the outdoor wait is the mandatory drug screening, which uses a device called a Vapor Tracer that can detect various narcotics on a person's thumb or fingers.

The machine registers whether someone has touched marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine or heroin -- but not whether they have used the drugs -- and it is aimed at blocking contraband from the facilities.

People who test positive are screened again. If the testing system produces another positive result, parents are not searched or detained but are turned away.

Although the department keeps statistics on the number of positive drug tests, it does not have the resources to keep records of individuals who test positive, nor does it report them to law enforcement, said Virginia Snapp, the probation department's deputy director of juvenile institutions division.

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