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Inmate Assaulted At County Youth Site

Officials confirm a racial attack at one of the facilities criticized in a federal report as having lax oversight.

November 22, 2008|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Hennessy-Fiske is a Times staff writer.

An 18-year-old incarcerated at a Los Angeles County juvenile probation camp suffered a serious neck injury earlier this month in a racially motivated attack that took place the day after a scathing federal report criticized unsafe conditions in the facilities, probation officials said Friday.

Details of the Nov. 1 attack at Camp Fred C. Miller in Malibu came to light after children's advocates heard about the incident and began asking county officials whether the victim was receiving medical care. The 18-year-old required surgery, which left him with two fused vertebrae in his neck, probation officials said.

The victim, who is African American, was attacked by a group of Latino youths, said Los Angeles County Probation Department spokeswoman Kerri Webb.

Probation officials reported that the assault was racially motivated but did not appear to be gang-related.

Webb said she could not release the victim's name or hometown, or disclose why he was at the facility. He turned 18 while in detention, and since he is still in juvenile custody, juvenile confidentiality laws apply.

He was hospitalized until Nov. 13 and then returned to his family. He will remain on probation at home, his medical care covered by the Probation Department. Webb said Friday that he was "doing fine," was conscious and was not paralyzed.

The report of the attack comes at a time when the probation camps are under increasing scrutiny. This week, county supervisors approved plans to hire independent monitors to force the Probation Department to comply with its own standards for, among other things, staffing and prevention of youth-on-youth violence.

Probation Chief Robert Taylor said Friday that his office has made strides in addressing federal concerns at the camps. About 2,000 youths are held at county detention camps at any given time.

"The camps are safe. You're going to have incidents like this in any facility our size with the kind of offenders we have," Taylor said.

But U.S. Department of Justice officials, in a report issued Oct. 31, said probation staffers routinely failed to protect youths in their care from attacks by other detainees.

"We learned that fights occur not only within the staff's field of supervision, but many occur out of staff's line of sight, in places that could not be well supervised given the small number of staff," federal investigators wrote, based on interviews with youths, reviews of probation records and visits to camps.

Webb said probation officials were still investigating the circumstances of the Nov. 1 attack and had not been able to question the victim while he was in the hospital. Officials do not suspect any misconduct by staff at the camp at the time of the attack, she said.

"We don't want to blame any of our staff members on this -- they acted appropriately and right away," Webb said.

But youth advocates say the attack is symptomatic of broader problems with youth-on-youth violence within the camps.

"We've continuously advised probation officials that they need to involve community leaders, gang interventionists, to help squash the violence," said Kim McGill of the nonprofit Youth Justice Coalition. "None of our recommendations have been taken seriously or implemented."

McGill, who works with probation youths and their families, said staff shortages exacerbate the problem. She said that in her visits to the camps, she has seen ratios as low as 1 staff member to 30 youths.

On the day of the attack, Webb said, Camp Miller had 10 probation staffers and 102 youths. The staffing ratio recommended by the state is 1 to 15, while federal officials recommend a ratio of 1 to 8.

L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes Camp Miller, was notified of the attack the day after it occurred, his spokesman said.

"It's a situation that raises a lot of serious concerns. It obviously should not have happened, and we're tracking it," spokesman Joel Bellman said. "These kinds of incidents are not new, but the department is trying to address that. We're all watching it very closely."

Taylor said his department was aware of deficiencies. Although 40% to 60% of the improvements recommended in the federal report have been made, he said, the troubled department will take years to fix.

"The deficiencies at these probation facilities are not something that happened overnight. This is the result of years of neglect," Taylor said. "It's not going to be solved in two years, three years . . . but we are doing it. We're on the road to improving how these facilities are operated."

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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