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Put Probation on probation

Federal supervision is needed to fix intractable problems at the L.A. County Department of Probation, where the real victims are the youths in its custody.

October 10, 2010|By Connie Rice

On a classroom wall of the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall where Los Angeles County houses — and is supposed to help — juvenile offenders, there is a sign that reads "No Reading Newspapers, No Cell Phone Use and No Alcohol Consumption During Class."

The message is for the staff.

The sign was posted after the Department of Justice found serious problems with the county's Department of Probation, including staff members drinking on the job and retaliating against whistle-blowers. The problems were so widespread that, in a 2004 memorandum of agreement, Justice Department officials required the Probation Department to "ensure that staff … do not maintain or consume alcohol at the camps" or "threaten and intimidate youth who report … mistreatment."

Six years later, the department has even bigger problems. Employees have been charged with sexually exploiting the youths in their custody, pepper-spraying them inappropriately and staging fights between kids.

After a decade of federal prodding, multiple civil rights lawsuits, muzzled warnings from the L.A. County Commission for Children and Families, deflected whistle-blower actions, dozens of unheeded Board of Supervisors resolutions and a spate of embarrassing news articles, the Probation Department's malpractice continues. Which means children in county custody are still committing suicide, dying from untreated illnesses, being "jumped" into gangs at the camps, receiving "diplomas" while still illiterate, being held in solitary confinement without needed mental health treatment and cycling directly into adult prison. As Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas recently revealed, the department even fails to feed its wards meals that meet minimal state nutrition requirements.

In August, new leadership at the Probation Department released an impressive, if disturbing, assessment that confirmed the extent of the dysfunction. It noted a lack of hiring standards, ineffective discipline, unsuitable staff, inadequate data systems, managers without authority, corruption in promotions and work rules that maximize staff convenience but damage operations. The assessment concluded that the department needed to "return to the basics."

But that's like recommending Mel Gibson attend a session with Miss Manners. The problems are so profound that, in my opinion, the department's new leaders need outside help to overhaul and replace the current culture. Among their recent findings is that staff need to learn "the expectation of 40 hours of work in a workweek," and "the consequences of failing to adhere to policies." It's hard to imagine solving such problems that deeply rooted without outside intervention.

For decades, the county Board of Supervisors' oversight has been ineffective, hiring standards lax and training inadequate. Employees have refused to collect data, conduct assessments or perform evaluations. Too many kids are locked up, and the idea of rehabilitating them was never effectively embraced. The department is organized to serve staff needs rather than those of the kids in its care, and the resulting culture of entitled indolence shields incompetence, shuns excellence and sinks the good employees struggling to do a good job.

If this all sounds familiar, it should. The county presided over a similar disintegration of mission with Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center. As far back as the 1970s, some of King/Drew's best nurses were sounding the alarm, demanding the removal of incompetent colleagues who were endangering patients. Instead, the county transferred the good nurses and left the incompetent ones in place. Some 30 years later, King/Drew's emergency facility was mismanaged into closure and the Board of Supervisors was finally forced to cede control over a new hospital to independent medical professionals.

So, why does the county continue to allow institutions to sink to such depths?

The County of Los Angeles, the nation's largest local government, is a world unto itself. Its huge, cubicle-filled departments are reactive and risk-averse. This sclerotic mind-set limits action to "inside factors" that bureaucrats can control from their desks. A refusal to deal with "outside factors" — say, the gangs operating in juvenile detention facilities — means that not only are problems rarely solved but, as one expert in child development noted, new ones are created: "The county grows a lot of the worst kids from inside its own departments."

The county's departments operate as fiefdoms, competing for funding and votes from the Board of Supervisors. Cross-department cooperation is so rare that when the Probation Department and the Department of Children and Family Services — two agencies that ought to be in constant contact — worked together to keep a family intact, it generated a Section A article in this paper.

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