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Records reveal problems in L.A. County juvenile probation office

At least 11 officers responsible for supervising youths in the juvenile justice system have been convicted of crimes or disciplined for inappropriate conduct involving probationers, a Times investigation finds.

February 21, 2010|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Richard Winton

At least 11 Los Angeles County juvenile probation officers have been convicted of crimes or disciplined in recent years for inappropriate conduct involving current or former probationers, including several cases of molesting or beating youths in their care, a Times investigation has found.

Juvenile probation: An article in the Feb. 21 Section A about abuses against juveniles by Los Angeles County Probation Department officers said the agency has 6,200 officers. The department has 6,200 employees, including 4,400 sworn officers. —

Additionally, two other officers are the focus of internal affairs investigations for allegedly having sex with probationers.

The Times identified the cases through court documents, law enforcement records and department sources. Probation officials said they were prohibited by law from discussing the details of officers' misconduct.

Among the incidents:

* A probation officer had sex with three youths in the detention hall where she worked -- in laundry, supply and interview rooms. She was sentenced last year to four years in prison after pleading guilty to five counts of felony sexual abuse.

* A probation officer caught on tape beating a youth in a juvenile hall recreation room was convicted last year of battery and sentenced to 24 months' probation.

* A probation officer was sentenced to a year in jail last year for directing five teenagers under her care to beat another youngster who she mistakenly believed had stolen her cellphone.

Los Angeles County probation officers are responsible for protecting 3,000 youths in 21 halls and camps, one of the nation's largest juvenile justice systems.

The department, with an annual budget of about $700 million, has been the subject of federal investigations in recent years for failing to prevent, report and document child abuse.

The Times examined records from the last four years -- a period during which county officials hired Robert Taylor to head the agency with the mandate of reforming the department, including providing better oversight of officers. At the time he took over, the department was struggling with violence in its halls and camps and persistent criticism that it was doing little to help the juvenile offenders in its care.

Probation officials have sustained 102 allegations of officer misconduct involving youths at the county's halls and camps over the last three years, according to a department source who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to release the information publicly. The source said many of the sustained cases involved complaints of excessive force. Department officials did not disclose how many officers were involved in misconduct or the extent of any discipline.

Taylor retired Feb. 5. Former Ventura County probation chief Cal Remington was appointed as acting chief to assess the department before the new chief, Alameda County probation chief Donald H. Blevins, takes over April 19.

During his tenure, Taylor said he tried to be more proactive than his predecessors, coordinating undercover internal investigations with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

For example, he said a probation sting with sheriff's deputies at Central Juvenile Hall in 2008 led to the arrest of a probation officer suspected of dealing marijuana to youths. The officer was fired, but has not been criminally charged, according to county officials.

"Unfortunately, we have people who fail to meet expectations and when they do, we deal with them with a disciplinary system that is swift and sure and produces the desired outcome," Taylor said. He said he did not consider the current personnel problems any worse than what other large law enforcement agencies face.

Taylor acknowledged at least one effort to monitor staff and probationers has fallen short: Many of the more than 600 security cameras at county detention halls and camps are broken. Last month, county supervisors approved spending $1.2 million to determine how best to replace some cameras and other security equipment at a juvenile camp and three halls.

Many critics say poor oversight has hampered the department's efforts to identify abusive staff.

Two years ago, federal investigators found that the department failed to investigate and document officer abuses, including excessive use of force on probationers.

The department has eight internal affairs investigators to review hundreds of complaints leveled against 6,200 probation officers each year, including about 2,900 sworn officers working with juveniles. By contrast, the Los Angeles Police Department has 271 internal affairs investigators for 9,900 sworn officers; the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has about 30 internal affairs investigators for about 10,000 sworn officers.

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