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Struggles continue at juvenile hall

Under new leadership, the county Probation Dept. has seen a decline in violence at facilities, but challenges remain.

March 19, 2007|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

In the year since Robert Taylor took the helm of the Los Angeles County Probation Department, violence in the troubled juvenile detention system has gradually declined as officials labor to improve conditions for the 4,000 teenagers in custody.

Yet vicious flare-ups starkly illustrate challenges yet to be overcome.

Under mounting pressure from the Board of Supervisors to comply with reforms ordered at the county's three juvenile halls, Taylor now faces U.S. Justice Department scrutiny of 19 probation camps for lower risk youths.

Taylor inherited a department damaged by years of neglect; federal monitors had identified problems with mental health care, education and the safety of adolescent offenders.

Since last April, Taylor has added 424 employees and taken steps to beef up management, training and departmental ethics so probation officers can better defuse problems.

There were 172 fights and assaults among Probation Department wards last month, compared with 210 in February 2006. Deputies used physical force to restrain youths 80 times, almost half the 140 incidents that month last year.

In three years of federal oversight of the halls, the Probation Department has completed a number of reforms, such as improving recordkeeping and security. Other reforms, involving use of force policies and suicide prevention, are nearing completion.

On a recent morning at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, hidden among the industrial zones at the northeast edge of the San Fernando Valley, some detention officers crossing grassy yards are young-looking and casually dressed. The center's brick buildings seem almost like a college campus -- except for the 14-foot-high fence topped by razor wire in the middle of the compound.

But order inside the hall is always fragile: This month, a male ward set his mattress ablaze with a cigarette lighter he had hidden in his buttocks. The fire caused more than $15,000 in damage.

With no sprinklers in the 42-year-old building, the fire injured four staff members, shut down two structures and caused 59 youths to be moved.

Officials believe the teenager who set the fire -- who fled from deputies into various cells and yelled that he wanted to die -- was trying to kill himself. He is now in a mental health facility.

Taylor blames the incident on poor communication between the boy's county social worker and his county psychologist.

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Reforms include firings

Taylor's housecleaning included 43 firings, including two employees accused of encouraging violence in a group of wards.

In that Sylmar incident, in May 2005, a probation staff member's cellphone went missing. When several juveniles pointed out a youth they believed may have taken it, the staff member unlocked the cell of the suspected thief and let four wards inside to beat him, according to court and Probation Department documents. Several minutes later, she told the minors to disperse, locked the cell and left the victim to nurse his injuries.

He did not visit the infirmary until the next morning, when he was treated for head, shoulder and elbow bruises.

The probation staffer later found her mobile phone under her car, according to court and departmental documents.

The youths were then apparently coached by probation employees on what to tell investigators, records show.

"The way the report is written, it looks like a conspiracy as to how to present it," said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Harvey Giss when the incident was discussed in a San Fernando courtroom earlier this year.

The Los Angeles Police Department investigated but no youths were charged.

The Probation Department staff member, however, was fired, along with a supervisor.

That officers charged with protecting the safety of 600 youths at Sylmar would instead allow them to fight one another to exert control is "abhorrent" Taylor said.

"It takes place when you have people that have really forgotten what their mission is," he said.

Ralph Miller, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 685, said such transgressions are inevitable with an understaffed workforce.

"I'm not making excuses for any one of our members," Miller said. But "if you don't want to have those kinds of things happening, you have to have the proper people, you have to have the proper training, you have to have the proper management."

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Victim paralyzed

In April 2006, eight Sylmar juveniles attacked a youth they believed had insulted them. By the time two probation officers broke up the altercation with pepper spray, the victim's neck was broken, leaving him permanently paralyzed.

The incident took place in a special video-monitored compound for high risk offenders. So investigators requested footage from three surveillance cameras in the room where the fight took place. According to court transcripts, however, the cameras had been unplugged.

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