Monday, May 30, 2016
street news, views and stories of justice and injustice
Follow me on Twitter

Search WitnessLA:

Recent Posts

Categories

Archives

Meta

When Calif. Closes Its Problematic Group Homes Will LA’s Neediest Foster Kids Have Somewhere Better to Go? – by Sara Tiano & Brittany Reid

May 23rd, 2016 by witnessla

FINDING FAMILY

A New California Law Will Soon Close the State’s Scandal-Plagued Group Homes.
So Where Will That Leave LA County’s Most Vulnerable Foster Kids?


by Sara Tiano and Brittany Reid


SCARY GROUP HOMES

Katrina Alston wasn’t trained as a therapist, social worker or anything of that nature when she worked at a Pasadena, California, group home for emotionally troubled teenage girls in the Los Angeles County foster care system. She simply went through a weeklong training process and two weeks of job shadowing.

With that scant preparation, Alston was charged with the care of at least six of the home’s 19 adolescents at a time when she was on shift.

Now, Alston is a social worker with the LA County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). It’s her job to investigate reports of child abuse or neglect and remove children from their parents if need be.

In the year and a half she has been working for DCFS, she’s needed to remove dozens of children from their parents. But she’s only brought one child to a group home.

Knowing what Alston knows about the way such facilities work, having seen what she’s seen as an employee at a group home she called “well-run, relatively,” is partly what stops her from bringing more kids to any similar facility, she said.

“It was wild,” she said. And not in a good way.

Sometimes, Alston said, she wondered how much the placements she was involved in were actually helping kids. “Are they getting better, or are they getting worse here?” She also often doubted how capable the system was of safely handling the many crises that arise for already traumatized children who enter foster care. “It was scary,” she said.

SHUTTERING DUMPING GROUNDS

In 2017, California’s group homes will be shutting down— or changing, at the very least — in the wake of new legislation passed in September 2015. The measure aims to move the state’s foster care system toward encouraging family-based placements for all foster children.

AB 403 “would provide for the reclassification of treatment facilities and the transition from the use of group homes for children in foster care to the use of short-term residential treatment centers,” according to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest appended to the bill.

This, in effect, would mean that children would have to exhibit a “clinical need” in order to be placed in a non-home residences, and that any such placement would be temporary.

Critics of the bill argue that closing group homes will hurt kids in a system that already suffers from too few foster care beds, and that tough-to-place kids who may have behavioral issues but don’t meet the “clinical need” qualifications will be especially affected.

Supporters of the bill argue that group homes often serve as dumping grounds for those same hard-to-place kids, who wind up still further underserved and developmentally disadvantaged.

Group homes are community-style residential settings where anywhere from six to more than 60 kids and teens live in a facility staffed 24 hours per day by a rotating crew of shift
workers, like Katrina Alston. The homes are categorized on a scale of 1-14 based on the level of behavioral, emotional and medical challenges among the residents.

Residents at a Level 14 home would be those kids who were the most “emotionally disturbed,” and prone to behaviors such as violence, running away and inflicting self-injury. Alston describes these acute care facilities in even harsher terms. “Level 14 is a juvenile psych ward,” she said.

Kids placed in lower-level group homes, though, may be just as hard to place for other reasons, such as age, lack of extended family to lean on or low chance of permanent placement. The rating of group homes also dictates the staff-to-resident ratio. At the Level 12 where Alston worked, the ratio was 1-6.

The staff of these homes are not required by law to have any sort of education or degree related to working with their resident populations — namely children suffering neglect, abuse and trauma. Their preparation includes 24 hours of classroom training they receive upon being hired and 20 hours annually of supplemental instruction, as required by California’s Department of Social Services.

The proposed replacement for group homes, short-term residential treatment centers (STRTC), would require a child be assessed with a “clinical need” for a more restrictive and differently equipped environment than a family home setting can provide, as judged by either the DCFS or a physician.

The duration of stays in STRTCs would be time-limited. Once residents are on a treatment plan and stable enough to live in a less restrictive environment, they will be placed in foster homes deemed equipped to handle their needs and set up with in-home services to further their treatment.

Group homes in California came under national scrutiny in recent years after a series of very public closures that included reports of abuse and neglect, along with harrowing tales of children missing from the home for days at a time. While this worst-case scenario of supposed protectors abusing the already abused was being highlighted in the media, a report came out suggesting that, even in the best-case scenario, group living situations aren’t an adequate option for kids who are separated from their families.



KIDS NEED FAMILIES

In January 2015, the California Department of Social Services sent a foster care reform report to the state Legislature recommending that the state mandate the closure of group homes and build out support for a family-centric foster care system.

Among the evidence provided against group homes in this report were allegations that children who go through reunification with their families after a stint in a group home are more likely to re-enter the foster care system than are those who are placed solely with families.

Further, the report cited studies showing that placement in a group home is correlated with significantly higher rates of arrest, as well as among the lowest rates of high school graduation when compared to other kids in the foster system. The report also said that many of the kids who’d come out of group homes had “articulated the need for permanency, normal childhood and teenage experiences, and caregivers who understand their needs.”

The latter sentiment was echoed by Alston, the group home staffer turned DCFS social worker. Her superior, Kelly Schreiner, who is the assistant director for the Metro North division of the department, also bullishly advocates for the need to prioritize keeping children with their family, if at all possible, when developing interventions in cases of abuse or neglect. She has made it the directive for her staff.

“Most of my cases, I don’t open,” said Alston, illustrating Schreiner’s position. “Most of my cases, we don’t detain, we don’t get involved. Or if we do, we get involved in the least restrictive way possible. Which might be, ‘This kid could benefit from therapy, let’s get him into therapy. What is this immediate need? How do we address that so we don’t have to be involved?’”

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, expressed a similar point of view on what he describes as the most beneficial kind of environment for foster youth.

“Non-family environments are the worst kind of care for children,” he said with emphasis. While Wexler believes group homes can’t be eradicated entirely, explaining they are truly the only option in a small number of dire cases, Wexler thinks closing down as many group facilities as possible would be a “vast improvement for the children.” He added that, in Chicago, children “have gotten safer” since group homes started closing.

Like many critics of AB 403 who are concerned that closing group homes will leave kids with nowhere to go, Wexler expressed similar worries about the shortage of foster care beds, though he doesn’t consider the legislation to be the root of that issue. “It’s not that LA has too few foster parents, LA has too many foster children.” Wexler points to figures indicating that LA has the third-highest rate of removal among America’s 10 largest cities.

The family-focused intervention plans codified in the new legislation certainly aim to decrease the rate of removal. But the drop in bed count associated with eliminating group homes as an option for placement may force social workers to opt for removing kids in fewer cases — which worries some child advocates who point to horror stories like that of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez who was killed after DCFS workers failed to remove him from an extremely abusive household quickly enough.

Still, Schreiner said 75 percent of the cases that come through her office are closed without a detention — the term used when a child is removed from his or her parent. But, she said, LA County “still takes too many kids without trying to give them adequate services in the home.”



WRAP AROUND

Schreiner and Wexler both think the best way to work with kids struggling at home is to work with the family by bringing in the services necessary to facilitate functional relationships between parents and children, rather than removing kids, in both biological families and foster families.

This is called the “wraparound method,” in which the family unit is the focal point of an intervention, with community and social services “wrapped around” the home in support. This method was also recommended in the Department of Social Services’ foster reform report. All three — Schreiner, Wexler and the report — suggest that the successful application of wraparound services will reduce the overall need for group homes and even perhaps foster homes in general.

The sentiments toward the short-term residential treatment centers that are designated as the replacement for group homes hasn’t yet crystallized. In general, it seems even the biggest decriers of group homes recognize that, for some children in the system, there is a very real need for treatment more intensive than what can be provided through wraparound services, at least for a time. In that regard, there doesn’t seem to be much pushback on maintaining that service in some form.

Wexler is concerned that the mandate of “clinical need” and categorization as a “treatment center” essentially make the STRTCs an in-house psychiatric ward for the foster care system.

“I worry that as you say you’re closing group homes, you’re institutionalizing institutionalization with this designation,” he said of the new legislation.

Schreiner, for her part, is even more wary of the new centers. According to her, the same organizations that operated the group homes will be operating the new STRTCs.

She’s got a point.


SAME PLAYERS DIFFERENT LABELS?

The text of the bill details the way existing group homes transfer to STRTC status when the law goes into effect in 2017. Though the methods outlined in the legislation don’t guarantee compliance, and some even argue that the burden and cost of retraining and reclassification would be too much for some centers, there’s no denying that existing centers do have the infrastructure and, now, the incentive to provide this new service.

“And if it’s the same people, how much better is it really going to be?” Schreiner asks.
In the final Senate analysis of the bill, the authors point out the need for counties to increase the number of foster families quickly to maintain enough beds for all the kids in the system. The law does allocate $17 million to fund recruitment and retention of foster parents and funding services for foster families.

Alston thinks it will take more than that, financially speaking, to really support the foster system the way it requires. She thinks foster parenting should be a profession, and salaried as such, if people are being asked to play this crucial role in the welfare and development of at-risk, in-need children. As it stands, foster parents make $657 to $820 monthly for each child in their care.

The eradication of the group home system seems to have significant support from those working in child welfare, according to those quoted here. And AB 430 indicates that lawmakers in California are serious about reforming the foster care system.

What remains to be seen is how the execution of STRTCs will turn out when the transition does take place. If the funding allocated isn’t enough to build a foster family stock sufficient to fill the gap created by the shuttered group homes, the shortage of options for kids in the system could be intensified. If inadequate group home organizations revamp themselves into the STRTCs without taking necessary steps to improve, they run the risk of continuing to be the toxic environment Alston described, or worse.

Hopefully, given the stakes and the catalysts for change, enough oversight will be in place this time around to prevent the latter, and to troubleshoot any other problems as they arise. In the meantime, LA County’s leadership has their work cut out for them: They’ve got foster families to recruit.



This story is the 5th in a series by reporters from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. The series is part of a collaboration between WitnessLA and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.


Photos by Sara Tiano, audio by Brittany Reid

Posted in Foster Care | No Comments »

Formerly Incarcerated Berkeley Grads, Supes Seek “Millionaires Tax” to Fight Homelessness, the 4th District Supe Candidates, LA Mag’s Charlie Beck Interview, and Exoneration in San Diego

May 18th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

BERKELEY STUDENTS’ PATH FROM LOCK-UP TO COLLEGE GRADUATION

On Sunday, UC Berkeley held its first ever graduation ceremony honoring 14 formerly incarcerated Berkeley graduates.

The ceremony was organized by the Underground Scholars Initiative, founded by two former Pelican Bay State Prison inmates, Danny Murillo and Steven Czifra, who made it out of solitary confinement and into UC Berkeley. The group’s focus is on supporting fellow former offenders-turned-Berkeley-students through their college years.

One of the graduates, David Maldonado earned his master’s degree in education this year, and hopes to continue on at Berkeley and earn a PhD in social and cultural studies. Maldonado earned his GED while in prison, then went to Berkeley City College before transferring to UC Berkeley.

CA Senator Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) delivered the keynote speech, praising USI’s work to “build a new pipeline, the prison-to-school pipeline.”

The Daily Californian’s Logan Goldberg has the story. Here’s a clip:

Pride was a central theme for the 14 formerly incarcerated UC Berkeley graduates who were honored at a special ceremony held Sunday afternoon in Anna Head Alumnae Hall. The ceremony — organized by the the Underground Scholars Initiative, a campus student group that advocates for current and prospective students affected by the prison system — was the first of its kind.

The USI was founded in 2013 by Danny Murillo and graduate Steven Czifra, who met at UC Berkeley and quickly realized that they had both been incarcerated at the Security Housing Unit in Pelican Bay State Prison. The pair has since worked tirelessly, alongside other formerly incarcerated students, to assist, support and “provide a safe space” for those with similar backgrounds, according to Murillo.

“We’re resilient overachievers,” Murillo said at the ceremony, adding that for the USI, “this is just the beginning.”

The ceremony’s keynote speaker, state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, said the state plans to have community college and degree programs in every California prison by year’s end. She noted that such efforts to reform the prison system are driven by success stories like those of the graduates.

“Having spent so much time trying to break a pipeline, the school-to-prison pipeline, it’s amazing now to work with the USI to build a new pipeline, the prison-to-school pipeline,” Hancock said at the ceremony.


THE LA COUNTY SUPERVISORS TO SEEK A “MILLIONAIRES TAX” TO HELP HOMELESS

On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to seek—via state legislation—a new “millionaires tax” that would fund housing and other crucial services for the county’s homeless population.

LA County and the City of LA are working on a collaborative plan to help and house homeless residents, but much of the funding is still in limbo.

Through the motion, proposed by Supes Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, the board would lobby the capitol for a law—likely a budget trailer bill—to give the county the power to tax millionaires’ income. The board unanimously approved a related motion by Supes Don Knabe and Hilda Solis to take a closer look at the county’s spending on homeless adults using mental health treatment, public assistance, emergency medical services, as well as how much the county spends locking homeless people up in jail.

The LA Times’ Abby Sewell has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl proposed lobbying the state for legislation that would give the county authority to impose a new tax on personal income over $1 million a year to fund efforts on homelessness.

The question would still need to go to voters and receive two-thirds approval before it could take effect, but because the county does not have authority to increase income taxes, it would first require a change in state law.

A recent county-commissioned poll that looked at various possible funding measures for the November ballot found that likely voters were most supportive of the millionaires tax option, which would raise an estimated $243 million a year, with 76% of those surveyed being supportive.

The city and county of Los Angeles passed plans earlier this year aimed at reducing the region’s growing problem of homelessness, and the county has approved $150 million in initial funding, but the source of ongoing funding to build housing and provide services remains in question. County analysts say almost $500 million a year would be needed to make significant reductions in the countywide homeless population, which currently stands at nearly 47,000.

But Supervisor Hilda Solis last week put the brakes on the proposal to move toward a millionaires tax, raising questions about the methodology of the polling and of the most recent homeless count conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

She said Tuesday that the majority of her concerns had been addressed and joined Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl in voting to pursue authority for counties to impose a millionaires tax for homeless services, probably through a budget trailer bill that would take effect in July.


SPEAKING OF THE SUPERVISORS…HERE ARE THE 4TH DISTRICT CANDIDATES’ VIEWS ON CRIMINAL JUSTICE ISSUES

LA Daily News’ Brenda Gazzar has a helpful guide on the contenders for LA County Supervisor Don Knabe’s 4th District seat, including background information and their thoughts on criminal justice and other relevant issues.

The candidates are Congresswoman Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro), Steve Napolitano, Knabe’s senior deputy, and Ralph Pacheco, a minister and board member of the Whittier Union High School District.

(Earlier this month, we posted a story about the top five candidates for Supe. Michael Antonovich’s seat, and their views on child welfare and juvenile justice.)

Here’s a clip:

Hahn, who has served as a congresswoman since 2011, said she wants more sheriff’s deputies hired to keep up with rising crime. She also wants more community policing efforts in the wake of the highly publicized jail abuse scandal that has the county “reeling right now.”

“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to prevent crime if we don’t have real trust between the Sheriff’s Department and the people they serve,” she said in a phone interview.

While serving as a member of the Los Angeles City Council, Hahn created in 2005 the Watts Gang Task Force, which included law enforcement, clergy and community activists who met each week in her office. That group was credited with building trust between police and the community and helping to reduce gang-related crime, she said.

Napolitano said he would also work to put more sheriff’s deputies on the streets, and he’d like to work with the Sheriff’s Department and Veteran’s Affairs to launch a veterans hiring initiative to help fill as many vacant Sheriff’s Deputy positions as possible. The Sheriff’s Department has funding for nearly 500 deputy vacancies, according to a department spokeswoman.

“We’ve got troops coming back from overseas who needs jobs,” Napolitano said in an interview. “We need sheriff’s (deputies). They make great public safety officers.”

Napolitano, a former Manhattan Beach mayor and councilman, said the county also needs better diversion programs with “measured outcomes” for the mentally ill and addicts as well as probation programs that end recidivism. The Board of Supervisors recently created an Office of Diversion and Re-Entry to reduce the number of mentally ill inmates who are low-level offenders, he said, but it’s the next board “that will really determine how that looks … and what the outcomes are going to be.”

Pacheco, an ordained minister and chairman and CEO of the Whittier-based nonprofit LC Foundation, said he wants the newly authorized civilian oversight commission to empower Sheriff Jim McDonnell “to take action to eradicate corruption in the department.”

While much of the jail abuse scandal has been adjudicated and resolved, “there are still pockets within the department that need to be addressed,” he said in an interview.

“The commission needs to be empaneled, needs to be given teeth with the addition of subpoena power to assist the sheriff in helping to restore accountability and confidence in the Sheriff’s Department,” Pacheco said.

By the way, the LA Times has officially endorsed Janice Hahn for the position.


RECOMMENDED READING: LA MAG INTERVIEW WITH LAPD CHIEF CHARLIE BECK COVERS HIS LAW ENFORCEMENT HISTORY, PROP. 47, CRIME RATES, COMMUNITY POLICING, AND MORE

In an LA Magazine interview with Gabriel Kahn, a USC Annenberg Journalism professor, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck discusses his time as an police officer in the ’80s and ’90s, through the crack epidemic, the Rodney King beating, and the LA riots, and how the LAPD’s policing strategies have evolved since then.

Chief Beck also talks about the impact he believes California’s Proposition 47 has had on crime rates and rehabilitation services, as well as discusses racism and officers’ use of deadly force, community policing, and the legacy the Beck wants to leave behind. Here’s a clip:

Your first big challenges as an officer were dealing with the PCP craze in the late 1970s and then the crack epidemic of the ’80s. How did those periods shape your experience?

It was a frenetic time. I worked in South Los Angeles, and we would routinely have these huge battles with people on PCP because they were so violent. As we went into the ’80s, the crack epidemic started to take hold. The crime rate was about three times what it is now. Homicide rate, too. You could just watch lives disappear on the street. People would succumb to the addiction, and families would break up and life became very cheap.

How did the LAPD combat that?

This was in the time of rock houses. There was major gang influence. People would take over a home and set up retail cocaine or crack sales. They’d put up an armed gate with one guy inside with the product and a gun, and he’d sell all day. We would hit five or six of those houses a day—send in an undercover, do a buy, pry the door off, and make the arrest. We would do that over and over; our arrest rate was about 1,000 a month. We had phone lines set up for people in the neighborhood to tell us where the crack houses were, and the tips would just flood in. We would start work at around noon, and we would work off our list and do the raids. The next day we’d come back in, and there would be a new list.

Did it feel as if you were on the losing side of a war?

Oh, yeah. All of that led up to Rodney King and then the riots, when we were having 1,100 murders a year. My conclusion as a police officer up through the late ’90s was that it would always get worse. And it always did. It was kind of idyllic when I was a young cop, and then it got more violent, more dangerous. The infrastructure of the city was deteriorating. So that was my conclusion. I was a lieutenant in the mid-’90s. And that’s when I began to see that there were ways to work this. I began to go in the opposite direction and think that we could do better and more effective policing.

What changed?

The first thing you have to accept is that you can make a difference. You have to accept that crime is not inevitable. That was Bratton’s litmus test for police management: “Do you think crime is a given?” I moved firmly onto the side where I thought, “If you put in the right pieces in the landscape, you could change a neighborhood.”

Read the rest.


A NOT-TO-BE-MISSED SAN DIEGO EXONERATION SERIES

The San Diego Union-Tribune has an excellent series on exonerations in San Diego County that we didn’t want you to miss. SD District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ recently launched a task force to investigate wrongful convictions. The conviction integrity unit’s two full-time prosecutors work in conjunction with the SD Public Defender’s Office and the California Innocence Project to right justice system wrongs.

Between 1989 and 2015, in San Diego County, there were 15 exonerations, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The Union-Tribune’s series tells those exonerees stories.

One of those exonerees, Kevin Baruxes spent 7 years behind bars, and survived a near-fatal stabbing, after a neighbor falsely accused him of raping her when he was 18 years old. Here’s a clip from Baruxes’ story:

Despite discrepancies in Mahaffy’s changing story, a lack of physical evidence and Baruxes’ alibi that he was home with family, the jury convicted him.

Baruxes said he had to keep most of the other inmates from finding out his charges.

“I didn’t go to the bathroom for like four days,” he recently recalled of his first nights behind bars. “That’s how scared I was.”

Baruxes managed to stay out of harm’s way until about five years into his sentence.

He said he got a new cellmate, who, unlike the others, wasn’t willing to keep quiet about why Baruxes was in prison. Later that day, he was stabbed twice with a seven-inch knife made out of a cookie pan from the kitchen. The blade nicked his lung and his kidney, almost killing him.

As courts denied appeal after appeal, Baruxes decided to go into protective custody.

“I was thinking, man, I might have to do 20 years. I wouldn’t make it without them killing me,” he said.

In 2002, the district attorney’s office received an email from Mike Chaney, Mahaffy’s ex-fiance, according to court documents. Chaney said that Mahaffy confessed to him that Baruxes did not rape her. He also said she was a chronic liar.

Baruxes’ lawyer hired an investigator to find others who could corroborate Chaney’s statements. He found an ex-boyfriend, a former roommate and her ex-husband. They all talked about fake illness and injury stories that she used to get attention and told the different versions they’d heard of her rape.

Meanwhile, a prosecutor tracked down Mahaffy, who admitted over the phone that she didn’t think Baruxes had raped her.

Baruxes went free soon after. He received $258,000 in compensation.

Posted in Education | 3 Comments »

A Federal Jury Weighs Competing “Truths” After “Honor Recruit” Deputy Tells About Kicks to the Crotch of a Mentally Ill Inmate and Other Alleged Brutality

May 16th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


COMPETING NARRATIVES & DECIDING WHOM TO BELIEVE

The most recent jail brutality case brought by the federal government against members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department is, as usual, a case of whom do you believe.

In the trial that began on Tuesday of last week in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge George Wu, the prosecution’s case rides on a former sheriff’s deputy named Joshua Sather who was most outstanding recruit in his training academy graduating class in the spring of 2010. Yet, according to the government, this same deputy resigned from the department after less than two weeks on the job following an incident in which he was allegedly told to participate in the brutal beating of a mentally ill inmate at the instruction of his training officer.

Thus far, 19 current or former members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department have been convicted of federal charges resulting from a multi-year investigation into corruption, brutality and civil rights abuses in the department run LA County Jail system.

The defendants in this latest trial, are LASD deputies Bryan Brunsting and Jason Branum who are accused of beating, kicking and pepper spraying the allegedly unresisting mentally ill inmate named Philip Jones, and then falsifying reports about the incident by portraying Jones as the out-of control aggressor.

According to federal prosecutors, on March 22, 2010, both Brunsting, who was at the time the training officer for less experienced deputies, and Branum, a former military serviceman, decided to ‘teach” inmate Jones “a lesson” after the inmate mouthed off to a female custody assistant.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Greer Dotson also alleged in her opening statement that training officer Brunsting “set out to teach a lesson to a new deputy” about how to use and how to “get away with” excessive force. The “new deputy” was Joshua Sather.

In the course of the trial, the government produced five witnesses to support their case. But, it is Sather, and another witness named Porscha Singh, whom the prosecution most needs the jury to believe.

Conversely, for the defense to prevail, it must convince the jury that Sather and Singh are unreliable or out-and-out lying for self-serving reasons.


THE CUSTODY ASSISTANT

Porscha Singh was the first witness called by the prosecution. Singh was, at the time of the 2010 incident, a custody assistant working on the 6th floor of the Twin Towers jail. Custody assistants—or CAs—are jail workers who work for the sheriff’s department, but who are not slaw enforcement officers.

Before CA Singh began to tell her story, both she and prosecutor Dotson made clear that she did not want to be in court. “I was subpoenaed,” she said, “and I didn’t want a bench warrant to be issued.”

Singh also told the jury that had been given immunity, meaning that nothing that she said would be used to bring any kind of charges against her, “as long as my testimony is truthful.” If she lied, she said, “I could be sent to prison.”

Singh was the custody assistant whom schizophrenic inmate Philip Jones “disrespected,” thus setting the chain of events that allegedly led to his beating.

On the day in question, Singh said that she was stationed in “the control booth,” an elevated multi-windowed perch at one end of the 6th floor module where she generally worked, when at once she noticed that there was one more inmate than there should be in unit’s visiting center, the entrance to which was across the module from the control booth, thus in her direct line of sight.

In order to sort out the discrepancy, Singh keyed up the intercom in the visiting room and asked the inmates each to say their names then recite the last four digits of their booking numbers, so she could check IDs against the list of people who were supposed to have visitor passes. All but one of inmates dutifully complied. The inmate who failed to do so was Philip Jones who instead said, “Fuck that bitch.”

At that, according to her testimony, Singh came down out of the control room, unlocked the visiting area, and confronted inmate Jones.

“I told him ‘What the fuck was his problem?!” she said. Then she asked to see his wristband. He complied. She checked it, then went back to the booth.

And, no, Singh said in answer to prosecutor Dotson, “I was never afraid.”

She was, however, irritated. So, according to Singh, she then called out to deputy Branum who was standing within shouting range of the control booth, “Somebody needs to check that motherfucker because he has a bad attitude!”

Jason Branum allegedly told her not to worry about it, that he was going to handle it.

“Nobody disrespects my CA”—meaning custody assistant—Singh said that Branum said.

Singh said she told him to “leave it alone,” and additional F-Bomb laden words to that effect.

(Singh is short and curvy with a slightly pugnacious demeanor, and during the whole of her testimony and cross-examination, displayed a breezy verbal mastery of the art of F-bomb usage.)


LISTENING IN

Around five minutes after that exchange, according to Singh, deputies Brunsting and Branum asked her to “pop’ the door to the visiting area—-“pop” being slang for “unlock.” She popped the door, and moments later she saw Jones being escorted by the three deputies.

Q: Did you see him resist at any time? A. No.

The deputies then escorted the inmate inside another door that led to a hallway connecting two modules, but where there were no cameras. Singh said that, on instinct, she pushed the intercom button allowing her to listen in on whatever went on in the camera free connecting hallway the deputies and their charge had entered, without anyone knowing she was listening.

Sign said she first heard training officer Brunting say, “Nobody disrespects my boot CA!”

Then a voice she assumed was Jones said, “Are you guys going to mess me up?”

“Then I heard a commotion.” Finally, she said, one of the deputies put out a “415” radio call, meaning deputy involved fight. Within a minute, other deputies ran into the area. A minute or two later still a “Code 4” was broadcast on the radio meaning everything’s okay.

When it was their turn, defense attorneys Richard Hirsch and Donald Re did what they could to dent Singh’s credibility by pointing out some inconsistencies between her trial testimony and her grand jury testimony and noting that in an interview with the LASD’s internal affairs, she told an altogether different story.

Yet, Singh freely admitted that she had lied to internal affairs to protect herself and her deputy colleagues.


THE HONOR RECRUIT

Former deputy Joshua Sather was next. Sather is broad shouldered, on the low side of medium height, and has good bones. He did not look happy to be on the stand.

In answer to questions by Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox, Sather told the jury that when he joined the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, it was October of 2009, he was 23-years-old and had been working in Colorado as a paralegal, but felt he wanted a more meaningful career.

I wanted to do something to help people,” he said. It was this desire that led him to law enforcement.

Sather’s uncle, his father’s brother, was a gang detective at the department’s Carson station, and told his nephew he loved what he did and that the LASD was a good place to work. “My uncle had an influence,” said Sather.

Sather told how, after he was accepted into the department, he went through 19 weeks of academy training along with approximately 49 other recruits. Upon graduating in February of 2010, was selected as the “honor recruit,” which meant, he explained when Fox probed, he was the top performer in all areas in his class.

After graduation, he went through a few additional weeks of training to work in the county’s jails, where nearly all newly-minted deputies are stationed for a few years before they can transfer to patrol. In March of 2010, he started at the Twin Towers, the newer custody facility built next to the county’s decrepit and infamously troubled, Men’s Central Jail.

All new deputies are assigned to training officers. But a day or two after Sather began work, his training officer’s wife had a baby, and he took paternity leave.

Sather‘s second T.O. was Bryan Brunsting.


BAD KICKS

On March 22, 2010, when the event in question occurred, Sather said he had been on the job about seven days, and was working with some other deputies on the 4th floor of the jail when he said he received a call from Brunsting, who told him to return to the 6th floor’s 161 unit, where he was met by Brunsting, Branum and a third deputy.

It was then, according to Sather, that Brunsting talked of the necessity to teach inmate Jones “a lesson.”

Sather described how the door to the interconnecting hallway area that Singh had described earlier was opened and inmate Jones was directed by Brunsting to go down the hallway.

As the door to the hallway closed, effectively locking the group into the narrow passage, according to Sather, Jones took a few steps then turned and said, “Oh, shit. I’m going to get my ass kicked!” Or words to that general effect.

“Then he began running down the hallway toward the door at the far end.” But that door was closed and locked.

“I ran after him and tackled him,” said Sather. Then he described striking Jones in the ribs and legs “because we were teaching him a lesson.”

Jones was not resisting in any way, according to Sather. Not kicking, attempting to punch, simply going limp and attempting to protect himself with his hands.

At that point, Sather stood up, because, “the inmate wasn’t doing anything.”

But Brunsting reportedly indicated that things weren’t finished.

Sather then said he saw Brunsting spread the inmate’s legs. “And then he kicked him hard in his privates.”

Jones cried out, according to Sather, and curled sow-bug-like into a fetal position in reaction to the pain of the kick.

“He was crying like a little kid who’s hurting but is also scared.”

Sather remembers more blows being directed toward the still unresisting Jones.

Sometime after that, according to Sather, deputy Branum pepper-sprayed Jones directly into his face.

As much of this activity went on, Sather said, he heard the other deputies say, “Stop resisting, stop resisting.”

Eventually the “lesson” was over, Brunsting radioed and more deputies arrived. As they came, Sather helped to handcuff Jones.

Then the inmate was escorted to the infirmary by yet another deputy, and was treated for injuries.


REPORTS, REVISIONS & RESIGNATIONS

Next, according to Sather, Brunsting ordered the beating participants to convene in the observation booth. Once there, custody assistant Singh was asked to leave, so the rest could sort out what should appear in the various incident reports that were required after any use of force. Brunsting told Sather he was to write the primary report, so he could learn how it was done, with Brunsting and Branum writing the “supplementary reports.”

According to Sather, Brunsting gave him his own report to use as a model. After writing several rejected drafts, Sather said, he eventually wrote a report that matched Brunsting’s almost word-for-word.

The jury was able to see both reports—Brunsting’s and Sather’s—which each described a violently uncooperative Jones who verbally and physically assaulted two of the deputies and was restrained only with great difficulty and a 3-5 second blast of oleoresin capsicum spray, also known as OC spray or pepper spray.

“Was what you wrote true?” prosecutor Fox asked Sather after the deputy read multiple passages from the matching reports in front of the jury.

“No, sir,” said Sather.

“So why did you write it?”

“I was told to do it.”

Eventually, the reports were approved by Brunsting and turned in to the proper higher-ups. Yet when Sather got home, he said his involvement with the beatdown of inmate Jones and the reports that followed, “began to bother me.”

In a state of upset he called his uncle and told him what had happened.

The next day, Sather resigned. When asked to explain his reason for leaving, he said he told the jail’s then watch commander, Lt. Elisabeth Sachs, that he needed to go back to Colorado because of a family matter involving his brother, none of which was true.

So, why didn’t he tell Lt. Sachs about the beating? asked Fox.

“I didn’t want to be that guy. I didn’t want to be a snitch.”

The lieutenant told Sather to take his upcoming weekend days and think matters over, that she would hold on to the resignation paperwork until he returned on March 28, at which time he could make a final decision.

Sather’s uncle and his dad took the unhappy deputy to Las Vegas for the weekend to talk things through. (The dad lives in Colorado, so Las Vegas was considered a sort of midpoint, Sather explained.)

But, despite all the talking, after they all came home, on March 28, Sather called Lt. Sachs and asked her to put through the paperwork for his resignation.

A week later, according to Sather, his uncle persuaded him that, if he was leaving, he owed it to himself and to the department to tell some LASD higher up the truth about why he was leaving.

So on April 6, Sather gave an accounting of the events of March 22, including the beating of inmate Jones and the subsequent allegedly false reports, to Captain Anthony Ward.

A few months later, he was interviewed by internal affairs, to whom Sather said he was far less truthful.

A few months later still, the FBI contacted Sather in the course of their ongoing investigation into brutality in the jails, and interviewed him where he was, by then, living back in Colorado.


“TRUTH” VERSUS “TRUTH”

As with Singh, defense attorneys Richard Hirsch and Donald Re energetically fished out any inconsistencies between the various accounts Sather gave to the LASD Captain, to the grand jury, and to internal affairs.

In closing arguments that will take place Monday morning, the defense is expect to tell the jury that Sather—perhaps together with his detective uncle—completely fabricated the account of a non-resisting Jones being viciously and unnecessarily beaten, for his own purposes.

(Uncle Michael Sather was one of the prosecution’s additional witnesses. Lt. Sachs was the defense team’s sole witness.)

The defense is also expected to argue that Singh was telling any “truth” the government wanted to hear in order to get the desired immunity. 


During closing, the prosecution will counter with its own narrative of the beating of mentally ill inmate Philip Jones.

And then, likely around noon on Monday, the case will go to the jury who will, in turn, decide whose story to believe.


POST SCRIPT:

One thing that the jury will not hear is the fact that the feds have a second case of jail brutality filed against Brunsting. The alleged incident occurred on August 20, 2009 and, it too, involved a deputy trainee who was allegedly asked to falsify incident reports, accusing the inmate of assaulting deputies, rather than the other way around. The charges are mentioned, in brief, in the original indictment, but then were severed into a separate case by the judge. One assumes that the question of whether or not the prosecutors will actually bring this additional case to trial will likely depend on the outcome of the trial that ends on Monday.

Posted in LASD | 10 Comments »

LA County Sheriff’s Department Takes Gang Diversion to College

April 18th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

This past Saturday morning, April 16, in a lecture room at the University of California, Irvine, a UCI student, whom we’ll call Luis,* spoke to 46 teenagers about how, as a 14-year-old living in Compton, he and his cousin, who was also 14 at the time, were sitting, kicking it outside his uncle’s house—also in Compton—when everything changed.

“Two Lincoln Navigators drove really slowly up to my uncle’s house,” said Luis, who is member of the university’s Sigma Delta Alpha fraternity. “And we saw the gun come out. It was an Uzi. And they started shooting. I dropped down to the ground. But then I saw that my cousin didn’t duck. He was choking with blood.”

Most of the teenagers in the audience had never been on a college campus, and they listened to Luis’s story with nearly breathless intensity. Ranging in age from 12 to 18, they were part of a Gang Diversion Team program (GDT) that was started ten years ago by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy, Fred Noya, out of the department’s Carson station.

On Saturday, Noya’s GDT kids had come to UC Irvine for an all day event that was designed to persuade the group of young men and women of the worth and joys of college, along with giving them the message that, if they wanted to go to a really good school like UCI, or other highly rated colleges and universities, if they were willing to work toward that goal, such a school was within their reach.

One of the first events of the day was the morning session featuring talks by several motivational speakers. And far and away the most popular of the presentations was the talk given the group by Luis.


DON’T BE A STATISTIC

As the kids watched fraternity guy speak, Noya watched his GDT charges whom he noted were “glued” as Luis continued his story.

Luis said that four bullets hit his cousin on that awful day-–”three in the stomach, one on the side.” Luis paused. “I saw him die in front of me….A kid shouldn’t have to do that. It changes you. It traumatizes you.”

Although he didn’t realize it right away, Luis had also been hit. A bullet grazed the side of his head just above his ear. Luis parted his hair with his fingers to reveal a still very visible scar.

“I usually don’t show this to people,” he said.

Luis went on to tell his young audience that, right after his cousin’s death, he stopped going to school, and began spending time on the street.

“I was blindfolded by rage and anger,” he said. “I stopped going to school for about three months.” All he could think about, he said, was retaliating for his cousin’s murder.

“It was a dark time.”

For a teenager in his painful state, Luis said, “you need someone who gives you hope.”

Over the next few years, Luis said he was “living two lives,” one of them in school, one on the street. Yet, despite his increasingly problematic behavior away from school, some of his teachers didn’t give up on him. In particular there was a physics teacher who was “extraordinary,” he said. She made it clear she thought he was someone who mattered by driving to at his house when he didn’t show up at school. The physics teacher did whatever else it took to get the boy out of the emotional spiral that had taken possession of him after his cousin’s murder.

At home, Luis said, he “didn’t have any guidance.” His parents worked very long hours and were exhausted during the show time they were at home. His dad had been deported twice. No one was pushing him to stay in school or helping him stay out of trouble.

“So having someone believe in me,” said Luis, made the crucial difference. He gradually reengaged in classes. And, with the help of the physics teacher, he applied to college.

By his senior year in high school, Luis had managed a near miraculous turnaround, a 4.7 GPA, plus he was class salutatorian at graduation. Even better, he got a full ride to UCI where he is now majoring in business economics. He plans to go on to graduate school and wants a career in finance.

“Don’t be a statistic,” said Luis to the kids in the audience, near the end of his story. “Anyone can change. It’s a lot of work. I worked really hard. But you can do it.”

When you come from Compton, Luis added, all you hear about is “famous rappers and basketball players.”

Since the kids in the audience came primarily from Compton, Lynwood and Carson, many of them nodded. What about the doctors and lawyers? What about the rest of the professions? Luis asked. “Don’t listen to the stereotypes,” he said.

For the rest of the time on the Irvine campus, the GDT kids toured the school with student volunteers who acted as guides and mentors for the day, telling stories from their own lives, and answering questions.

At lunch, when the GDT youth were asked to give feedback about which of the day’s speakers and activities had most affected or inspired them, the response was unanimous. The story of Luis was easily the winner.

“With all he had going against him and nobody always pulling for him, he kept at it,” said one UCI visitor. “I want to be like that.”

Luis had made college seem possible, they said. “He’s one of us.”


MORE THAN SUPRESSION

Ten years ago when GDT began, LASD Deputy Fred Nova was, as he explained it, on the suppression side of law enforcement when it came to gangs. Specifically, he worked in a COPS Bureau** “suppression team” at the LASD’s Carson station. Then one day Todd Rodgers, who was then the captain at Carson, asked him to come up with a gang intervention and diversion program that would have a positive effect on the city’s gang members who were “causing damage to property and lives in the city,” said Noya. (Rodgers is now an assistant sheriff at the sheriff’s department.)

Enforcement could only go so far, Rodgers felt. He wanted a ““community-based intervention strategy” that interwove police efforts with those of community organizations.

Noya signed on enthusiastically. “I decided I had to make it personal,” he told me. “I had to act as if it was my own kids I was working with.” If he looked at the nascent program any other way, “like as a stepping stone” on a career path, “it wouldn’t have worked.”

The need was apparent. “We’d had a lot of parents coming to us. Mom’s crying that they were afraid of their kids,” or that their kids wouldn’t go to school.”

When it was first launched, the program dealt mostly with active gang members. But, over time, it widened to include kids who were on the fringe of gangs, the wannabes and the soon-to-be’s. “We thought, why don’t we get ‘em before they get to the point” of arrest or serious police involvement, said Noya.

The way the program worked was that kids would be referred to GDT—by parents, by school officials, by law enforcement, and in some cases, just walk ins who’d heard something interesting was going on.

Each kid would go through assessment by a case manager to determine their level of risk, the details of their family situation, educational needs, drug involvement, mental and emotional issues, and more. Then after a thorough review, each boy or girl would be referred to a list services in the form of a detailed action plan.

The programatic referrals included things like mentoring, tutoring, a life skills class, anger management, drug and rehab programs, and various kinds of rewards, like trips or outings offered as incentives. During the process, each kid’s progress is monitored and documented.

The GDT program serves both boys and girls, although boys are still in the majority. On the girls’ side of things, Deputy Noya pointed to the example of a girl named Kiani Dean, whose grandma brought her to the program. Kiana, Noya said, was a frequent runaway who was overly tattooed, and suffered from depression, and a general lack of self worth. After participating in a year of mentoring and conflict resolution programs through GDT, Noya said, Kiani was able to begin to turn things around. Now, after graduating from high school with honors, Kiani is an honors student at Hampton University, with plans to become a doctor.


GETTING OUT OF “THE DARK PLACE”

Sometimes, Noya noted, the success stories are far less obvious than that of high-achieving Kiani.

One night just before Christmas 2014, he said, “this guy came up to me in the station.” The boy, now an 18 year old, had been in the program a few years before, but not done well. A gang member who continued to cause trouble and get into regular fights, Noya’d had more than a few “go-rounds” with the kid, he said.

Then one night the boy—now legally a man—approached Noya at the Carson station house and said, “Hey, Deputy Noya, remember me.”

“I remember you,” said Noya cautiously.

“Can we walk outside,” the kid said.

The deputy found himself instantly on alert, thinking that perhaps the kid intended to take a swing him, Noya said when he told me the story.

Once outside, the young man’s expression changed. “I just wanted to say ‘thank you,’” he said. “I never had a dad and I appreciate all that you said to me.”

Noya listened, stunned. “I don’t do crime anymore,” the young man continued. “I’ve done some bad things. But now I’m managing a pizza place.” He didn’t make a lot of money, he said. “But I make enough to take care of my mom.”

Noya remember that, a few years before, he’d become so exasperated with the kid, and the trouble he caused, that he’d told him it would be better for all concerned if he left town.

The former gangster reminded Noya of his advice about leaving. “You were right,” he said. And he did leave.

He now lives in Inglewood, he said.

Noya was blown away. “Honestly, when he asked me to walk outside, I thought for sure we were going to battle.” Instead the young man thanked him over and over.

But the thanks didn’t end with the one visit.

Late one night after the reunion at the station, the young man texted Noya.

“Thanks for getting me out of the dark place,” read the text.

Noya allowed amazement to creep into his voice as he told me the story.

“Kids’ll surprise you,” he said. “You never know when something you say is going to take root.”

That’s why he loves this program, Noya said.


*”Luis’s” real name was not be used to protect his privacy.


**COPS Bureau, is the federally funded Community Oriented Policing Services, which include targeted gang suppression.

Posted in Gangs, LASD | 3 Comments »

The Trial of Paul Tanaka – Part 4: Tanaka Takes the Stand, and the Prosecution Uses the “V” Word

April 4th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


‘UNWAVERING SENSE OF RIGHT AND WRONG”

Midmorning on Friday, after a week and a half of witness testimony, the prosecution rested its case in the criminal trial of former Los Angeles County undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

But the main event of the day in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson, was when the defense began their case and called their first witness at 9:53 a.m.

“We call Paul Tanaka,” said defense attorney Jerome Haig.

Paul Tanaka, for those just joining us, was the second in command at the nation’s largest sheriff’s department and, for many years, the man whom it was assumed was would succeed former Sheriff Lee Baca when Baca stepped down. Instead Tanaka has been charged by U.S. Government with obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Specifically, the charges allege that Tanaka oversaw and directed deliberate efforts to get in the way of an FBI investigation into brutality and corruption in the LA County jails that began in 2010. To do so, the feds contend that, from mid-August 2011 through much of September, Mr. Tanaka and department members under his direction devised a scheme to hide an inmate-turned-confidential-informant from his FBI handlers; that they attempted to intimidate potential witnesses into refusing to cooperate with the FBI; and that they falsely threatened a federal agent with arrest (among other allegedly problematic actions).

Using a string of two-dozen witnesses, plus piles of telling emails, records of interestingly-timed phone calls between relevant parties, audio recordings of Brown and other potential witnesses being interviewed by department members, and more, government prosecutors have painstakingly built what they hope is an impregnable case against the former undersheriff.

During his three hours of testimony, Tanaka and Jerome Haig, one of his two attorneys, attempted to smash as many pieces of the prosecution’s case as they possible could.

Tanaka began his testimony by painting a picture of himself as an accomplished, and scrupulously honest and hardworking lawman. He told about his graduation from Loyola Marymount University, his background as a Certified Public Accountant, the fact that he is now in his twelfth year as the mayor of the city of Gardena, and his speedy rise through ranks of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.

Tanaka then spent time telling the jury about his management style and his ethics.

He described himself as someone with an “unwavering sense of right or wrong,” who attempted to impart that ethic to those working under him.

For instance, he said that when he visited the department’s various stations, he always told deputies to “make sure that you’re as smart as you can be, know all the laws, know the lines of right and wrong, and do your job,” but do it in “the right way because that’s our obligation as peace officers.”

Tanaka also portrayed himself as a hard worker who demanded the same from other supervisors, noting that when was the assistant sheriff he often “had difficulty” finding chiefs, commander and captains who often seemed to ditch work for part of the day. So, he said, he ordered that supervisors “have to be at work,” Monday through Friday from 9 to 5.

Tanaka implied that some of the prosecution’s witnesses who alleged negative things about him were, in reality, disgruntled slackers whose feet Tanaka had held to the figurative fire.


THE MATTER OF THE F-BOMBS

Several prosecution witnesses quoted instances of Tanaka reportedly dropping the F-bomb with impressive frequency in meetings. Tanaka and his lawyer addressed this issue as well.

“Have you ever use language not suitable for television?” Haig asked his client.

“In administrative sessions? No,” Tanaka said.

Well, did he ever say, “Fuck the FBI?

Tanaka hedged this more specific question with the classic, non-denial denial. “I have no recollection of making that comment,” he said.

About the testimony of witnesses who said he told deputies to police in the “gray area, or by crossing “the blue line”—meaning crossing over the line of legality, Tanka was more definitive.

No, said Tanaka, he did not ever talk about “the blue line.” As for the gray area, he explained that this term in no way suggested illegality. To illustrate, the former undersheriff held his hands out in front of his chest, but far enough apart that he could have been holding a long sourdough baguette between his palms.

Yes, he had told deputies to work the gray area, but that was the area between legality (he gestured with one hand) and department policy (he gestured with the other hand).

In general, Tanaka worked to dispatch the testimony by such government witnesses as Bob Olmsted, Al Gomez, John Clark, Pat Maxwell and Steve Roller by implying—or stating conclusively—that what those men said happened, in fact, never occurred.

(See our story on those witnesses’ testimonies here)


WHO REALLY GAVE THE ORDERS?

Of necessity, much of Tanaka’s testimony addressed the issue of whether or not he gave the orders that precipitated the various actions that are the basis of the government’s criminal allegations.

Tanaka insisted that any orders that were given were “lawful” and came from then sheriff Baca, who Tanaka said was “consumed” by the issue of federal informant Anthony Brown, and the contraband cell phone that Brown had paid an LASD deputy to bring to him in return for a bribe, as part of an FBI sting.

When Haig asked his client if he issued “any orders that Anthony Brown should be hidden from the FBI?” Tanaka answered with a firm no. He also said he did not give orders to ignore a federal grand jury subpoena. Nor did he give orders to confront a federal agent, or keep the FBI from seeing inmates.

Tanaka said he didn’t remember personally giving ICIB Captain Tom Carey any kind of instructions about investigating the matter of Brown and the contraband cell phone.

“I didn’t have any investigative experience,” Tanaka told the jury reasonably.


USING THE “V” WORD

Friday’s most dramatic moment came just after Tanaka had finished testifying. The court day was nearly over but, with ten minutes remaining, Judge Anderson called the prosecution to begin its cross-examination.

Prosecutor Brandon Fox walked quickly to the lectern.

“Mr. Tanka,” he said, “Mr. Haig took you back through your career, and your experience as a CPA. However, Fox noted, Tanaka’s attorney did not ask him about certain other periods in his long career. For instance, Fox said, “Mr. Haig didn’t you ask about your experience as a supervisor at the Lynwood Station, correct?

“He did not,” answered Tanaka.

“And when you were a sergeant at the Lynwood Station, you learned that there was a deputy clique at the Lynwood Station, correct?

“Yeah,” Tanaka replied cautiously.

“And that deputy clique was known as the Vi…..”

It had been a long and strenuous day and it appeared to take a couple of seconds past the word “clique” for the defense to grasp where this was going.

Then they got it.

Fox did not fully get out the first syllable of the word “Vikings,” before Tanaka’s attorneys bounced from their chairs like spring-loaded jacks-in-the-box, shouting “objection, your honor!”

The Vikings is, of course, the tattoo-wearing, sign-throwing deputy clique that was most active in the department from the mid-1980’s into the 1990’s, and was the focus of a huge class action lawsuit—Thomas v. the County of Los Angeles—that alleged a wide variety of brutal and illegal actions by deputies toward community members. These deputies, wrote the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals of the Lynwood Vikings, “…regularly disregard the civil rights of individuals they have sworn to protect.”

More relevantly here, it was the group of which Mr. Tanaka was/is famously a member.

Even Judge Anderson’s eyes appeared to be pin wheeling as he hastily called for a sidebar.

When finally the two groups of attorneys returned to their seats, neither the prosecution nor the defense team looked particularly cheerful so it was impossible to guess which side might have prevailed at the sidebar.

“I believe we’ve done about as much as we can do for today,” Anderson said noncommittally from the bench and then told the jury that the court was going to break until Monday, and delivered the usual admonition to jurors about not talking to anyone, or reading or watching anything pertaining to the trial.

“As for the issue we discussed at sidebar,” Anderson said, then he asked for short briefs by both sides by Sunday, as to why the court should allow this line of questioning “or why we should not.”

And so the day ended with a cliffhanger.

Monday should be interesting.

So stay tuned!


POST SCRIPT: For your reading pleasure, you can find the government’s brief here.

And the defense’s brief here.

Plus the defense is trying one more time to get the judge to grant Lee Baca limited immunity and to compel his testimony—or at the very least, allow in snippets of previous interviews with him by the feds. You can find that motion here.


WITNESSLA ON KPPC TALKING ABOUT TANAKA TRIAL

On Friday afternoon, I was on KPPC FM with Nick Roman for a quick story talking about the trial, Paul Tanaka’s testimony and what is to come. You can find the podcast and a web summary of the story here.

Here’s a clip:

…Tanaka testified for nearly three hours in what was the main event of the day, according to Celeste Fremon of Witness L.A., who’s been following the trial. The prosecution rested Friday morning after a week and a half of testimony on Tanaka’s alleged crimes.

Tanaka answered questions trying to dismantle the structure of the prosecution’s arguments Friday, Fremon said. The judge began to allow cross-examination, but when prosecutor Brandon Fox started to ask about Tanaka’s involvement with the deputy gang known as the Vikings, the defense objected. The judge ultimately told everyone to come back Sunday with briefs on why that line of questioning should be allowed.

While the Vikings aren’t directly related to this case, Tanaka has allegedly been a member for many years of the deputy gang that made news in the 1990s and was part of a class-action lawsuit, Fremon said. The reason for the question, Fremon said, was that it speaks to what the government is calling the context of Tanaka’s alleged style of supervision as undersheriff.

Posted in LASD, Uncategorized | 8 Comments »

YouthBuild, the “Holloway Doctrine,” and ICE Modifies How It Issues Detainer Requests in CA

September 21st, 2015 by Taylor Walker

YOUTHBUILD PROGRAM IN SAN JOAQUIN COUNTY GIVES NEW HOPE AND A CAREER PATH TO KIDS AT RISK OF DROPPING OUT OR ENTERING THE JUVIE JUSTICE SYSTEM

In California’s San Joaquin County and across the nation, the YouthBuild program teaches construction skills to struggling teens while helping them obtain their high school diplomas or GEDs.

The alternative education program lasts for six months to two years and serves 16 to 24-year-olds who are aging out of foster care, have had contact with the juvenile justice system, or are otherwise at risk of dropping out. YouthBuild also connects teens and young adults with contractors and apprentice programs upon their graduation from the program.

Last month, six YouthBuilds in California received a portion of $76 million in funding from the US Labor Department. The $1.1 million allocated to San Joaquin’s YouthBuild will cover the cost of 80 students for two years, plus a year of assistance after graduation.

The Stockton Record’s Reed Fujii has more on YouthBuild and how it shifts struggling kids’ trajectories. Here’s a clip:

Roosevelt Webb lost his way after his father died.

He had dropped out of school as a senior at Edison High in Stockton to help take care of his dad and, at age 21 and with no diploma, he said, “I didn’t know what to do.”

Another Stocktonian, James Vong, said as a teenager he had no guidance, no father figure, and growing up on the city’s gritty streets, found himself falling into drugs and the gang life.

But both have found a new direction through San Joaquin County’s YouthBuild program, an alternative educational program that emphasizes building-trades skills as well as academic school standards.

Webb, now 24, works for the San Joaquin County Office of Education, helping supervise YouthBuild teams on construction sites.

And Vong, 20, is enrolled in the program and was working on an affordable housing project in south Stockton as part of Webb’s team.

“Ever since attending YouthBuild, I made a 360 degree flip,” he said of his life. “Now I’m working at Habitat (for Humanity’s Dream Creek project), doing what I love.”


JUDGES (AND PROSECUTORS) HAVE THE ABILITY TO GRANT LENIENCY TO INMATES SERVING OUTDATED, TOUGH-ON-CRIME SENTENCES

Despite increased federal efforts to lower prison populations by releasing non-violent drug offenders, President Barack Obama ranks among the ten least merciful presidents of the United States, having granted only 153 pardons, commutations, remissions, and respites, thus far.

Recent releases of two men serving excessively high and outdated sentences (often for drugs) have brought attention to another less-used method of leniency. The two men, Francois Holloway and Luis Anthony Rivera have successfully petitioned judges to reduce their old, disproportionately harsh sentences. The original prosecutors had to consent to the judges’ decisions.

Advocates and legal experts believe that if federal prosecutors will agree not to oppose judges’ leniency, the appropriately named “Holloway Doctrine” has the potential to lead to the release of many more inmates serving sentences that would not be handed down today.

The LA Times’ Richard Serrano has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Rivera and Holloway asked federal judges for leniency, something that happens frequently, and federal prosecutors agreed not to fight, which is rare.

The original sentencing judges agreed to take a fresh look at the punishments of the two men. Assured that both had turned their lives around, the judges and prosecutors agreed to vacate parts of their original convictions and reduce their sentences to “time already served.”

Legal experts predict the cases could open the door to similar requests by many more prisoners if federal prosecutors are willing to take the same approach elsewhere.

“That’s a pretty novel way to do things,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group. “I’ve not run across a lot of people who ever get out that way, and we get letters every day from people wanting help.”

Mauer predicted that the Rivera and Holloway examples will prompt defense lawyers around the country to seek similar relief for clients and will give judges “a level of comfort” in agreeing.

“It’s always the courageous ones that go first,” he said.

Holloway’s case went to court last year in Brooklyn, where the top federal prosecutor at the time was U.S. Atty. Loretta Lynch, who is now attorney general. Lynch at first resisted his release, suggesting he seek a presidential commutation. But she ultimately agreed not to oppose his appeal.

The original sentencing judge, John Gleeson, a former prosecutor who had put Mafia boss John Gotti in prison, noted that Holloway had served more time for robbing three cars than “if he had committed first-degree murder.”

“Black men like Holloway have long been disproportionally subjected to the stacking of counts,” Gleeson said, referring to sentencing rules that he said forced him to sentence Holloway to 57 years in prison in 1996.

The judge applauded Lynch for consenting to the release.

“This is a significant case, and not just for Francois Holloway,” he said. “It demonstrates the difference between a Department of Prosecutions and a Department of Justice.”


FEDERAL IMMIGRATION DEPT. CHANGES APPROACH IN HOPES OF REGAINING COMPLIANCE FROM CA LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES

In the face of law enforcement agencies’ widespread refusal to comply with federal requests to hold undocumented immigrants in jails for up to 48 hours, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) representatives say the department is trying to be more flexible and meet law enforcement groups in the middle.

Under the new system, ICE analysts in a SoCal office run data on arrests to determine who is high priority for deportation before issuing detainer requests. ICE still asks law enforcement to let them know when they are releasing someone facing deportation, but issues fewer detainer requests for low-level offenders.

The LA County Sheriff’s Department changed its stance from no compliance with ICE detainer requests to allowing ICE to interview incarcerated immigrants, but still refuses to keep immigrants locked up past their release dates.

The Associated Press has more ICE’s new methods and how law enforcement agencies are responding. Here’s a clip:

…immigration authorities have also narrowed their focus to people convicted of more serious crimes, and the number of so-called detainer requests — which aim to have jails hold inmates up to 48 hours for deportation officers to pick them up — dropped by 24 percent in the 2014 fiscal year from a year earlier.

At the same time, the number of people deported from the United States, not counting those apprehended on the border, fell 24 percent, federal statistics show.

Immigration authorities had begun issuing detainers based on electronic data after getting access to fingerprints from jail bookings under enhanced law enforcement information-sharing after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

ICE initially started the hub in suburban Southern California to streamline the process for the region, one of the key spots where detainers were used. Now, the Pacific Enforcement Response Center issues about 40 percent of all immigration detainers and requests for notification when inmates are being released, handling the task for much of the country on nights and weekends.

The office, which issued 6,800 detainers and notification requests between June and August, contains half a dozen computers that collect leads for potential deportees and spit out the results on a large printer. Analysts and agents then search for matches in databases for visa holders, naturalized citizens and border arrests to determine the immigration status of those booked into local jails.

In the last three months, detainers or notification requests were sent in 11 percent of the center’s cases. Others are typically sent to field agents for investigation and about half are set aside because the person is here legally or doesn’t have a serious criminal conviction to make them a priority for deportation under the program, which was revamped last year, ICE officials said.

Under the new approach, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department lets immigration agents interview inmates who have detainers but won’t hold them beyond their release date. In Santa Clara County, officials still won’t honor detainers but are weighing whether to notify ICE about serious offenders, while authorities in San Francisco won’t do either despite public outcry after the shooting.

Posted in Education, Foster Care, immigration, juvenile justice | No Comments »

Does CA Have to Send So Many Foster Kids “Out-of-County?” by Daniel Heimpel

August 18th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



EDITOR’S NOTE:
This story by Daniel Heimpel about a former foster child named Heather Matheson, is the first of a series of stories exploring the good and the harm done by a strategy called out-of-county placement that is used by the various county agencies in California’s foster care system. The story was co-produced by WitnessLA & the Chronicle of Social Change, of which Heimpel is the founder and executive director.


OUT OF COUNTY, CA: THE PROBLEMS WITH GOING THE DISTANCE

What is the cost/benefit ratio of putting foster children—who have already lost so much—into “out-of-county” placement?

by Daniel Heimpel


Heather, slight and precocious, made her Los Angeles County high school’s track team as a freshman.

It was a major feat, something to be proud of in the maelstrom of the 14 year-old’s life. Only months before, the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) had removed Heather from her home after a harrowing week of physical abuse and domestic violence.

After 15 months in what had been a promising foster-care placement near Taft High School, set in a pleasant part of the San Fernando Valley, things had started to fall apart. The department decided to move her in with relatives in neighboring Ventura County.

The only problem, one that seemed deceptively small in the context of her painful family history, was that she now had to take three buses to get to school, the only real support system she had left.

“Looking back on it,” Heather says, “it was this short period of time, but it was really stressful. It was a stressful year of life. I could have been going to school dances and football games, but I didn’t because the buses don’t run that late.”

In 2009, when Heather was put into what is called an out-of-county placement, California’s feudal foster care system was larger than it is today, with roughly 70,000 kids in the state’s care who had been removed from their parent’s custody and then placed with foster parents, in group homes or with extended family.

Yet, what hasn’t changed in the eight years since Heather began her foster care odyssey is the fact that 1 in 5 California foster youth will find themselves taken away from the county where they lived and placed in another county. At present, a total of 12,626—or 20 percent of all California children and youth in a foster care placement—live in a different county than the one that they previously called home.

The reasons why foster children and youth are forced to cross county lines so often boils down to conflicting goals within the system, simple geography, and the push and pull of housing costs.

One way to understand the out-of-county issue is to look at the different types of placements to which children are sent. In April, the Center for Social Services Research (CSSR) at the University of California, Berkeley, drawing data from California’s 58 counties, reported that there were 62,915 children in foster care, a number that has been steadily rising since a low point of around 55,000 in 2011. The main placement types for children are with kin, in privately run foster family agencies (FFA), in county-run foster homes and, finally, in group homes, which generally get the older and harder-to-place youth.

Data pulled from CSSR’s California Child Welfare Indicators Project shows that in 2015, 21 percent of kin (such as extended family members), 24 percent of FFA, 5 percent of county foster care and a whopping 36 percent of group home placements were out-of-county.

When it comes to kin—-the preferable foster care placement according to many child welfare leaders-—the reason why 21 percent of kids cross county borders has a lot to do with simple geography. If you live in L.A. County, but your aunt and uncle live in Ventura County, as was true for Heather, you’ll be placed in Ventura County since, all things being equal, that’s a better solution than asking you to live with strangers in L.A.

For children in FFA placements, the movement is, in part, due to the fact that privately run foster family agencies often span more than one county, and some of those counties do a better job at recruiting foster parents than others. So if the agency can’t find a child a foster home out of their list in one county, they’ll bounce them to a neighboring county.

When it comes to group homes, the cost of doing business is cheaper in suburban and exurban areas than the city centers where many high-needs youth come from. In addition, political pressure to reduce reliance on group homes has been felt most by the urban counties where anti-group home sentiment has taken deepest root. This means that in counties like Alameda and San Francisco, some group homes have been shuttered. As a result, the only place to send the kids who need to be in these higher-level placements is out of county.

The implications for children’s lives can range from the good, where foster youth are placed with family members who welcome and care about them, to the bad, where contact and eventual reunification with biological parents becomes strained by distance, and access to critical mental health services, and other services that the child needs, is often delayed or degraded, if ever delivered.

Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance for Children and Family Services, sympathizes with the limited choices court officers and caseworkers often have to work with when placing foster kids.

“They have to make these kinds of Solomonic decisions all the time, and they have to do it at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday,” Schroeder said.


IN COUNTY

Heather’s case fell into the part good, part bad category.

Her journey began on March 5, 2007. That was the day that DCFS took the 13 year-old from her parents.

The official status review report submitted six months later to the county’s juvenile dependency court described the details of the situation. On that day, “and on numerous prior occasions, the child Heather Matheson’s mother, [redacted], and father, [redacted], have engaged in violent altercations in the presence of the child including father chasing mother in his vehicle… Additionally, father got the child involved in the parent’s arguments by requiring the child to call the mother on father’s behalf.”

What the report neglects to describe is the run-up to her removal. A week before Heather’s father chased her mother in the car, Heather showed up to John A. Sutter Middle School in Winnetka with bruises on her arms, prompting her teacher, who was also her track coach, to report child abuse to DCFS. When a social worker showed up at her parents’ door to investigate, Heather says she was too scared to say anything in front of her father, whom she remembers as being “short fused.”

After the social workers left, Heather’s father flew into a rage. Her mother, who was planning to move to Idaho with a new man, was not at the house.

“He wanted her to come over,” Heather says.

The girl’s father had a gun in his hand, and told Heather to call her mother.

“When I made a big deal that I didn’t want to do that, he hit me with the gun,” Heather says.

The blow knocked the 90-lb. 13 year old unconscious. When Heather came to, she made the call.

“I said, ‘I am scared, Dad has a gun and I don’t want to be there,’” Heather recalls saying.

But she got no help from her mom.

“If you want to live with him, you have to learn how to deal with him. It’s not my problem,” Heather recalls her mother saying.

Heather’s father then forced her into the car, leaving the gun on the dashboard. As he drove wildly from street to street looking for his wife at every motel he could find, Heather remembers watching the gun slide back and forth in front of her.

When the DCFS investigator who had visited Heather’s home days before showed up at school the next day for a scheduled interview with Heather, the frightened girl told the social worker the whole story. After hearing her out, the investigator told Heather she would have to take her to an emergency shelter. At this point Heather’s teacher, who was also in the room, broke in.

“I don’t want her to end up with strangers,” Heather recalls the woman saying. “My husband and I can take her in.”

Despite the teacher’s initial good will, the placement would not last.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in DCFS, Foster Care | 1 Comment »

WHO IS WATCHING OUT FOR ANGEL? The Shadowy Intersection of Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice – by Daniel Heimpel

April 12th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon




EDITOR’S NOTE:
On Tuesday, the California Senate Judiciary Committee will debate a bill to widen access to extended foster care benefits for probation-involved foster kids who have landed in the juvenile justice world because of untenable situations at home.

The wonderful and important story below written by Daniel Heimpel—and co-produced by WitnessLA & the Chronicle of Social Change— explains in deeply human terms why this bill is so essential.

WHO IS WATCHING OUT FOR ANGEL?

A 20-year-old’s saga of abuse, incarceration and heartache illuminates the shadowy intersection of child welfare and juvenile justice.

by Daniel Heimpel


Like a picture in a magazine.

That’s how Angel’s mother Leah wanted their small townhouse in Pacifica, California, to look. Picture perfect.

Leah says that she got the idea of giving her 12-year-old daughter chores after Angel’s school sent home fliers describing the importance of teaching children how to “become successful adults.”

When her adolescent daughter failed to manage perfection—when Angel missed a task in her 16-point list of chores that ranged from cleaning the cat’s litter box to folding plastic grocery bags exactly four times over—Leah’s mood grew dark.

The punishments she meted out escalated from ridiculous, to humiliating, to grim.

“She would ground me from food,” Angel, says. “She would ground me from wearing normal clothes. I’d have to go to school in my pajamas. She would ground me from petting my cat. She would ground me from my room.”

Having given birth to Angel when she was herself just 16, Leah says that she didn’t ever learn how to be a parent. Then, when her own father died, and Angel was around 14, Leah stifled her grief with a mixture of alcohol and cocaine, which she admits affected her behavior.

Whatever the exact cause, when her daughter failed to maintain the order she was trying to bring to their home, Leah’s reactions were extreme. She would exile Angel to the communal laundry room of their housing complex. There, with the damp Pacific cold pushing in, cat vomit on the floor, the girl would be forced to sleep.

Worse still were the beatings. Sometimes, Angel says, her mother would hold her down, and use scissors to cut the clothes off her body.

One day when the girl was 15, the usual discord between Angel and her mother erupted. This time, however, the conflict took a direction that would set Angel adrift in the murky space between juvenile justice and foster care.

The row began in the evening over some dirt under the microwave that Angel had neglected to wipe up. This time Angel stormed out before the punishments could start.
When she came back, red-faced from climbing the hill to their home, her mother accused her of being drunk.

“She confiscated my book bag saying she was going to look for drugs in it,” Angel says. With her book bag, Leah also took the homework that Angel had to turn in the next day.

Angel was famous for leaving everything until the last minute, says her grandmother, Wendy.

“Talk about a fuse lit and the bomb explodes,” Wendy says. “The situation became very volatile.”

Angel kicked Leah’s door, frantic to get the book bag back.

Leah burst out, and attempted to ground Angel from her room again. “She started taking my door off the hinges. I tried to stop her, and was met with punches and kicks so I backed away.”

Leah’s version is different. Instead of demanding her schoolwork, Leah says that her daughter threatened her.

“’I don’t fantasize about drugs or sex,’” Leah remembers Angel saying, “’I fantasize about ways to kill you.’”

Both Angel and Leah agree about the way the fight ended. “I copped out and called the cops,” Leah says.

An hour later, two male police officers appeared at the front door. Angel told them that she was the victim, and tried to show them the hot red welts on her arms and legs from where her mother had hit her. “They averted their eyes so quickly,” Angel says, “as if they wanted to pretend I had never said anything.”

The cops took Angel to the Pacifica police station. From there, she was moved to San Mateo County “Youth Services Center,” a juvenile hall in Belmont, where she spent two-and-half months. Finally, Angel says, her attorney told her that if she took a plea deal, she would be released faster than if she waited around for trial. She pleaded guilty to charges of vandalism and battery and spent the next five months across the street in the Margaret J. Kemp Camp for girls.

When the five months were up, no one was sure where to send the girl. Leah admits that child protective services had investigated her because of reports of abuse and neglect filed by neighbors and Angel’s estranged father over the years, starting when Angel was a baby and Leah was still in her teens. Why child services never removed Angel from Leah’s care earlier is not clear. But when her relationship with her mother failed, and she was released from camp, it was probation’s turn to act as a parent.

And so it was that, in 2010, Angel became one of roughly 4,000 California children who to this day enter the juvenile justice system and are kept in group homes because they have nowhere to go or cannot be safely returned home to serve out the terms of their probation.


CALIFORNIA’S “SECOND SYSTEM”

California’s probation system is one of a number across the country that use federal foster care funds to take care of kids like Angel who enter juvenile justice but have no safe home to serve out their probation terms, so are placed in group homes. With the federal dollars come strings, along with memorandums of understanding spelling out for all 58 counties that their juvenile probation departments must provide case management like the foster care system would.

But probation isn’t foster care. It is a law enforcement agency, which means its go-to method for eliciting compliance from kids is often its power of arrest, a tactic that runs contrary to the goals of healing children from the emotional abuse that got so many of them caught up with the law in the first place.

Then there is the matter of what to do when this distinct subset of vulnerable probation youth reach age 18.

In the foster care system, it has long been recognized that to cut all aid at age 18 was to invite poor outcomes with disproportionately high numbers of foster youth experiencing homelessness, incarceration and diminished educational opportunity. When it comes to children who have had the double blow of experiencing foster care and the juvenile justice system, a famous 2011 study out of Los Angeles tracking these so-called “crossover youth” showed that their transitions into adulthood can be twice as perilous.

With the outcomes of foster youth in mind, in 2010 the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 12, which extended foster care benefits from age 18 to 21. In 2012, California began implementing AB 12, and kids like Angel, who entered foster care through probation’s door, were eligible.

While Angel describes her encounters with juvenile justice as painful and providing little discernible therapeutic value, they did afford her the opportunity for support past age 18.

“These young people are fleeing abuse and neglect,” says Amy Lemley, the policy director of the John Burton Foundation, and a leading advocate behind AB 12. “ They [probation foster youth] probably did something as a direct result of being maltreated, and that resulted in them entering the juvenile justice system. We have a secondary system for kids that act out because they were abused.”

While far from ideal, that “secondary system” provides a unique escape, unavailable in most states.

“In other places, the juvenile justice system is completely distinct,” Lemley says. “She [Angel] would have been shuttled into the criminal justice system and not be eligible for extended foster care.”

Pending legislation here in California could open up eligibility for extended foster care to even more young people who were involved in the probation system.

But advocates maintain that this is not a simple policy fix. Across the state, county probation departments are grappling with how best to help these emerging adults who are often suffering the long-term effects of childhoods riddled with traumatic events, including having spent large parts of their younger days in juvenile halls, camps or probation-run group homes.


THEN THE TRAILER CAUGHT FIRE

Shortly before Angel’s 16th birthday, the juvenile probation department in San Mateo County released her to the custody of her grandmother, who had finally agreed to take her. While this new living situation was far preferable to returning Angel to her mother, it was less than ideal.

Angel’s grandmother, Wendy, had always been an anxious and at times oblivious woman. (She confesses, for example, that she had no idea that her stepson had been sexually abusing Leah when she was a child.) With Angel sleeping on a couch in her cramped South San Francisco apartment, Wendy tried to set the “boundaries” in a sort of delayed atonement for her failings as a mother to Leah.

“She worried about my safety excessively and didn’t want me to end up like my mother: a teenage parent on drugs,” Angel says.

Angel admits she wasn’t an easy kid to handle. “I came to her after suffering years of trauma,” she says. “I was struggling to cope and I had a tremendous amount of repressed anger.”

Wendy’s efforts to keep the rebellious teenager in check, along with the terms of Angel’s probation, which included strict curfews, came to a head one night in January of 2013. Wendy had been up the whole of the previous night, sewing a Victorian-era styled dress for Angel to wear at a dance the following evening. Angel and her grandmother had bonded over tales of English aristocracy and stories of Wendy’s grandmother, who had been educated in London and spoke the “Queen’s English.”

“It was part of the family mythology we liked to connect with,” Wendy says.

But the sleepless night of sewing, along with the strain of a recent invasive medical procedure to remove varicose veins, caused Wendy’s temper to flare and the two fought. The rupture lasted for weeks. By March, Wendy says that Angel was increasingly elusive, staying away nights at a time. Finally one night, a worried Wendy remembers driving to the South San Francisco Police station with an 8.5 x 11 inch photo of Angel’s face, and pleading with police to find her granddaughter.

When the police did find Angel near a San Bruno shopping mall a few hours later, she was scared of being locked up again and gave the cops a fake name. Angel pleaded guilty to giving false identification to a police officer and was soon whisked back to San Mateo County juvenile hall, where she remained for the next two-and-a-half months.

“I thought it was very unfair,” Angel says. “I hadn’t done anything wrong, but was being treated like a criminal.”

When it was time for her release from San Mateo Juvenile Hall, Angel’s grandmother would no longer take her in, and her mother’s home still wasn’t a legal option. Thus county probation “placed” her in a group home on the grounds of the juvenile hall.

The group home, called the Excell Readiness Center, was in reality a flimsy prefab structure, where four boys and four girls were crammed into four tight bedrooms. Angel would spend the next 10 months there. She was due for release when she turned 18.

Weeks from her birthday, Angel met with her probation officer who gave her a cursory description of the extended foster care benefits available to her. According to Angel, it was one of only a handful of times she met with her P.O.

Days after the meeting, a dryer in Angel’s group home caught on fire.

“Smoke was pouring into my room from the hallway,” Angel says. “My entire room was full of it.”

As she and her trailer mates were evacuated, she remembered that one of the boys had once threatened to set the place on fire. “He actually did it,” Angel says.

After a long and cold night spent in one of the group home vans, the kids who had been consigned to the trailer were moved to the “receiving home” down the street where children removed from their homes because of safety concerns were kept until they could be placed in foster care. “Our clothes and hair still smelled of smoke when they woke us up,” Angel says.

Vernon Brown, the CEO of Aspiranet a large youth service provider that ran the readiness center until 2014, says that most of the kids were moved back to the structure within a couple of weeks.

But for Angel, the fire meant leaving probation’s care prematurely and going back to live with her grandmother prior to her 18th birthday. Wendy agreed to take her granddaughter back, under the condition that it would only be for a few weeks.

Once those weeks were up, as is the case for so many other probation-involved foster youth, the only thing certain in Angel’s life was uncertainty. She was not terribly clear about how to get the extended benefits her probation officer had outlined only briefly. And the idea of putting herself back into the county’s hands made her anxious.

So Angel struck out on her own.


WIDENING THE DOOR

In October of 2010, the year AB 12 was passed, 391 youth between age 18 and 20 were supervised by probation in group homes, according to data compiled by the Center for Social Services Research at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare. By January of this year, the new law was showing impressive results. The number of 18 to 20-year-old probation youth had exploded by almost 400 percent to 1,485 young people.

But advocates contend that significant numbers of probation-involved foster youth are still being excluded from AB 12, so are pushing for new legislation to open access to kids who share similar experiences with Angel.

Among those young people still slipping between the cracks are those who have spent large stretches of time in the county’s care but are, by happenstance, released from probation group homes to the custody of a relative before they turn 18.

“They forget that the youth ever came from child welfare,” says Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director the Youth Law Center, and a central player behind a series of legislative pushes to improve AB 12 for probation-involved foster youth. “Sometimes the probation department is releasing them right back to the parent who child welfare removed them from. All the problems that initiated the child welfare referral still remain and are not resolved.”

Another group presently excluded are the otherwise AB 12 eligible kids who, for one reason or another, find themselves in a locked juvenile facility on their 18th birthday, at which point any extended benefits suddenly vanish.

In October of last year, The Chronicle of Social Change published a story following the lives of three brothers who had all been in foster care.

The youngest, Joseph Bakhit, was AB 12 eligible and is using the extended benefits to help him pursue a degree at UC Berkeley. The oldest, Matthew, was excluded because he was already 21 when the law was implemented. Terrick, the middle brother, was denied AB 12 benefits because he was locked up in San Diego County’s Camp Barrett on his 18th birthday. If he had been released to a group home the day before, or if the judge had written him an all-important “placement order,” he would have been eligible.

Without the benefits, Terrick has struggled to succeed, the most stable employment he has had was selling knives for Cutco.

State Senator Jim Beall, who had been one of the lead legislative proponents behind AB 12, was moved by the story of the Bakhit brothers, and the efforts of advocacy groups like the Youth Law Center, to introduce legislation that would expand extended foster care eligibility for probation-involved foster youth.

“When you take away benefits, it is telling the kid, ‘You’re not going to college,’” Beall says. “I fail to see the logic of taking away the benefits. We’re going to fix that. That is the intent of [Senate Bill] 12.”

SB 12, which will be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 14, would also open up eligibility for a class of kids who, like Angel, had nowhere to go when the terms of their probation were up. But, while Angel was legally “placed” with grandmother Wendy, making her magically eligible, some are simply sent to live with a relative or other caretaker without a placement order, leaving them ineligible for the important three years of extended foster care benefits.

But the proposed legislation has powerful opponents, such as county probation department officials from up and down the state who say they are already struggling to deal with the influx of AB 12-eligible foster youth, so are opposed to widening the door for still more young people.

“We are having difficulty serving the foster youth we do have,” says Rosemary McCool, deputy director of the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC). “The current programs, in our view, aren’t sufficiently funded. We shouldn’t be expanding the population by any amount.”



PROBATION AS PARENT

As Beall and others battle with the CPOC over whether or not to fix the policy barriers for excluded crossover and probation youth, the big question affecting young people now in the system is this: Are probation departments equipped to effectively stand in for parents during AB 12 kids’ fitful transitions into adulthood?

California is a vast and diverse state, and some counties deal with the fates of their 18-year-old charges better than others. Contra Costa County is among those still struggling, according to an attorney with intimate knowledge of the county’s system.

Virginia Corrigan is both a deputy public defender in Contra Costa County and a lawyer working for the Youth Law Center through a fellowship offered by Baker & McKenzie LLP and Intel. As a P.D., Corrigan carries a caseload of more than 30 Contra Costa probation youth who are AB 12 eligible.

She says that while the county is good at getting kids into AB 12, probation lacks the institutional knowledge to effectively deal with housing and other critical services once the kids are in the system.

“Sometimes supervision of this population is foreign to probation,” Corrigan says.

The matter became clear to Corrigan on her very first case in 2013, when she spent weeks helping her young client fill out forms for housing services, and explaining how AB 12 worked.

“It ends up being a replacement for what a social worker would be doing,” she says. “My primary goal should be advocating for them in court,” not helping them with paperwork to get them a place to live.

Across the Bay in San Francisco, the county’s juvenile probation system is far more proactive. Instead of relying on its probation officers to handle the casework for AB 12-eligible probation youth, the department added two new social workers dedicated exclusively to working with that population. The workers were assigned to the Juvenile Collaborative Re-Entry Unit (JCRU), which was already helping the county’s probation youth as they transition back into their communities.

“We were very aware of the conflict of having probation officers supervise those youth,” says Allison Magee, the executive director of the San Francisco-based Zellerbach Family Foundation, who, while serving as deputy director of the city’s Juvenile Probation Department in 2012, came up with the idea of hiring social workers for AB 12 kids. “It frankly is confusing to both the child and the P.O., as the P.O. has mandated responsibilities that would become very blurry.”

Allen Nance, chief of San Francisco’s Probation Department, also considers the strategy important. “Unlike other departments across the state, we are one of the few, if not the only, that has chosen to staff these caseloads with social workers instead of probation officers.”

Rebecca Marcus is a San Francisco juvenile public defender with 24 current AB 12 kids on her caseload. Marcus sees AB 12 as a lifeline for young people who have few options when released from probation without a safe place to call home.

“I have had two kids within the past year who were AB 12 eligible, whose high school graduations I attended, who didn’t take advantage of the program and who were both killed in San Francisco,” she says.

The latest death, which occurred just a month ago in March, has clearly shaken the fast-talking public defender.

“AB 12 is a tool to help young people relocate out of wherever they live,” she says, pointing out that oftentimes these youngsters return to the same dangerous neighborhoods that led them into the system in the first place. This was the case, she says, with her 19-year-old client. “He had the ability through AB 12 to relocate. He did not, and was murdered in the middle of the day.”

Polina Abramson is one of San Francisco’s two AB 12 social workers who work to keep kids caught in risky personal circumstances in extended foster care. She says she has 19 such cases, five of which are “unfunded,” meaning that the young people are not meeting all of AB 12’s eligibility requirements. Her counterpart, Heather Bruemmer, has a caseload of 22.

In addition to that list, there are other kids who are eligible, says Abramson, but didn’t opt in immediately, thus winnowing down the three short years of benefits that AB 12 offers.

Abramson says she understands why 18-year-olds often want to strike out on their own, especially those whose last residence was a probation group home. But, she notes, they often come back.

“There’s a lot of responsibility that goes into surviving in the real world,” Abramson says. “Kids realize that they could actually benefit from having someone in their life and have support.”

When they do, Abramson and Newell are there to catch them. And P.D. Marcus is more than ready to make their case in court.

In Angel’s San Mateo County, the juvenile probation department says that there are only three probation youth accessing AB 12. Angel now wants to be the fourth.


GETTING BACK IN

It is just after 6:00 pm on Friday, March 27, and Angel is already an hour late for her meeting. She passes happy clusters of other young people, relieved to be taking their first breaths of the weekend on a cool spring evening in downtown Oakland.

Angel too is feeling happy. It is her 20th birthday, and it has already been a good day. She and grandma Wendy spent the afternoon together. The highlight: sharing high tea, English style, a nod to their mythologized aristocratic ancestor.

Angel chose not to see her mother today. In the five years of their separation, Leah has made a number of unsuccessful efforts to repair their relationship, like showing up unannounced on Angel’s 18th birthday, which frightened the newly minted adult, rather than delighting her. Other attempts by Leah to give her daughter gifts have resulted in Angel recoiling.

“My mother says that Angel treats every gift like a rattlesnake that is going to bite her,” Leah says when called for an interview on Angel’s 20th birthday.

Arriving slightly flushed at the eleventh floor offices of the California Youth Connection, Angel is greeted by six former foster youth and two staffers sitting around some tables pushed together for the weekly policy-intern meeting. They are there to discuss how education policy is effecting foster youth, but when Angel walks in they immediately begin singing “Happy Birthday.”

As it happens, Angel has something else to celebrate. Just the day before, she handed in paperwork to a San Mateo social worker that should allow her to opt back into AB 12. Since her 18th birthday, Angel has spent most of the past two years at a transitional housing program available to young people at risk of homelessness.

But Angel has often coped with less stable circumstances, couch surfing with acquaintances, even spending one difficult night warming herself next to a generator in a South San Francisco park.

Angel hopes for at least a period of real stability while she works to advance at San Francisco City College. But for now, riding high on her birthday, she dreams of visiting England and the manor where the popular PBS show “Downton Abbey” is shot.

If yesterday’s paperwork is approved, the “second system” that handles cases like hers will provide her with a residence and other benefits, at least until her next birthday.



Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.

WitnessLA and the Chronicle of Social Change collaborated in producing this story.

The story was made possible through the support of the Sierra Health Foundation,which has partnered with the California Endowment and the California Wellness Foundation to launch the Positive Youth Justice Initiative to reform the juvenile justice system in four California counties.


All photos (except for the family photo of Angel and her mother) are by the excellent Max Whittaker, a freelance photojournalist and founding member of Prime.


CORRECTION: We wrote Heather Bruemmer’s name inaccurately in the original draft of this story, but it has now been corrected.

Posted in Foster Care, Homelessness, juvenile justice, Juvenile Probation | No Comments »

How Santa Clara’s James Ranch Became a CA Model for Helping Incarcerated Kids

March 11th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


EDITOR’S NOTE: For the past two weeks, we’ve published stories from the series by John Kelly for the Chronicle of Social Change. The series—in which WitnessLA is collaborating—is taking a close look at programs that use a strategy known as Positive Youth Justice to help kids who have come in contact with the juvenile justice system.

First we ran a story that explored an Oakland, CA, program that uses a process called community conferencing, which asks lawbreaking kids to confront the effects of their crime.

Then last week, the series looked at a program in Tarrant County, Texas, that has been successful in helping reboot the lives of kids who, two decades ago, would have been sent to a state-run juvenile lock-up.

Today, we’ll look at Santa Clara County’s James Ranch.


This story was produced as a collaborative project with The Chronicle of Social Change.


PLAGUED WITH A HIGH RECIDIVISM RATE, AND A RASH OF RUNAWAYS, THE OFFICIALS RUNNING SANTA CLARA COUNTY’S JAMES RANCH DECIDED TO TRANSFORM THE PLACE

by John Kelly


There are few issues in juvenile justice more hotly debated than the appropriate use of incarceration—which youth can be served and rehabilitated in the community, and which youth need to be confined?

In general, the number of youths incarcerated in America is down. Way down. A report released in 2013 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation charted a decline from 107,500 confined juveniles in 1997 to 71,000 in 2010.

“This decline has not led to a surge in juvenile crime,” the report made clear. “On the contrary, crime has fallen sharply even as juvenile justice systems have locked up fewer delinquent youth.”

Yet relatively few of the hundreds of facilities that house juveniles in America have embraced a positive youth development (PYD) approach to engaging and strengthening juveniles while they are locked up. One of the unique programs that does is Santa Clara County’s William F. James Ranch.

When the ranch first opened half a century, its model was based primarily on tight behavior control. Then 2005, the facility reinvented itself using a PYD framework built heavily on strong prosocial interaction between its staff and its wards. The drastic changes to its programs and employees have resulted in far fewer incidents at the facility and lower recidivism rates after ranch residents return to the community.


HOW IT STARTED

Since 1956, the James Ranch has served as Santa Clara County’s placement option for older, violent offenders. It is operated by the juvenile division of the county’s probation department, which also oversees a massive juvenile hall that includes detention and incarceration beds.

In the early 2000s, violent incidents and escape attempts at the ranch were commonplace.

“When I first started with the old [ranch] program, the training was about safety and security: how to keep yourself safe, how to keep the kids safe,” recalls Santa Clara Probation Manager Anne Elwart, who started as a guard and went on to direct the ranch.

Just fewer than 100 youths were held at the ranch at any time, and they were guarded by a relatively small group of line staff trained only to keep the peace.

“We did the best that we could with what we had”, recalled Elwart. “Often, we were just watching.”

In 2004, the county hired Sheila Mitchell as chief probation officer. Mitchell came from neighboring Alameda County, where she was the deputy chief of probation, and prior to that had served as deputy commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice.

Mitchell said her initial impression was that the ranch was little more than a way station for serious offenders.

“The kids would tell you they were just doing time,” she said. “You had two, even three kids a week trying to run away. The community was outraged, the county executive was outraged.”

An assessment of the ranch’s outcomes revealed that four out of 10 kids were failing the program and returning to incarceration.

“When we looked even closer, it wasn’t that they were failing as much as that the program was not designed for them to succeed,” Mitchell said.

Pushed by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors for a plan that would cut her budget, in 2005 Mitchell instead asked the board for a proposed budget increase of $3 million. The funding would increase the number of staff at the ranch, and recalibrate its program around a PYD framework.

Although there was initial resistance, matters were helped slightly by the fact that some of the supervisors had been part of a 2003 Santa Clara delegation that visited juvenile facilities in Missouri, where the state Division of Youth Services (DYS) had become a national model for reframing juvenile incarceration.

The “Missouri model,” as it is called, requires the use of small, campus-style facilities with youth work professionals serving as the line staff. Youth are clustered into small, “family-style” groups.

That arrangement has helped Missouri’s Department of Youth Services maintain a recidivism rate below 10 percent among the juveniles released from their facilities. In 2008, DYS won Harvard’s Innovations in American Government Award for its approach.

Back at Santa Clara, however, “there was interest, but no traction” on the idea of moving towards a California version of the Missouri’s model, Mitchell said—until she presented her $3 million proposal with a cost-savings pitch.

“I was able to give them a return on investment report,” Mitchell said.
“I argued that when you look at the failure rate now, it was going to save us money in the long range to invest in this program. They took a leap of faith, and decided to invest.”

And so it was that the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors approved $3 million to bring a PYD approach to the James Ranch. Elwart led the writing of a curriculum that would focus on what is known as aggression replacement training [for more on that click here], education and mentoring relationships, along with extensive training of the camp’s workforce.

The county also hired the Missouri Youth Services Institute to help with the design of the new service model. The institute had recently been founded by longtime DYS Director Mark Steward, and was working on similar assistance projects with Washington, D.C. and Louisiana.

Missouri operates eight very small facilities using its system, but that was not possible in Santa Clara, which to this day still has one barracks-style living unit.

Instead, Elwart had to corral the staff into doing a one-night, makeshift renovation of the unit before its reopening using rope and blankets to create the dorm-like settings prescribed by the Missouri model. The department eventually agreed to build actual walls into the unit. But then, facing a $1 million price tag for the project, it opted instead to spend $60,000 on the kind of partition walls used in many office buildings.

Yet, the partitions did the trick.


A WELL-EDUCATED, WELL-TRAINED STAFF

Elwart worked at the ranch for a total of 19 years, most recently as the director of the facility. She rotated to a new post in adult probation in late December and was succeeded by Jermaine Hardy, who rotated to the ranch from the juvenile services division of the probation department.

The facility employs six supervisors; 68 full-time line staff; six teachers and a small team of part-time staff devoted to mental health and substance abuse. The teachers are employees of the Santa Clara Unified School District.

Each member of the line staff must have a four-year degree. By comparison, the state of California requires its correctional officer candidates to produce a high school diploma or equivalent.

Staffers’ education continues when they are hired by Santa Clara County where, before a worker is allowed to work directly with youth, he or she will go through 80 hours of core training. For the first six months, they are trained on the correctional component of their job — “on how to be a good guard,” Elwart said.

After that each line staff receives 12 days of training on the core principles of the ranch program. This includes two full days of training on aggression replacement, motivational interviewing, and substance abuse counseling.


HOW IT WORKS

The key to the success of the ranch program, Elwart said, is the interaction between the line staff and the youth. The full-time line staff are responsible for one of the six living units, but they are also counselors assigned to help and mentor two offenders.

“We work out of a 1958 building with pivot walls, so it’s not the building,” she said. The magic is in the interactions.

“We don’t sit there and do shaming and blaming. These staff build rapport and actually work with [the youth]. That’s the secret sauce.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in juvenile justice, Positive Youth Justice | No Comments »

Formerly Locked-Up LA Youth Tell How to Build a Better Juvenile Justice System

February 6th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


LOOKING FOR THE LA MODEL

Los Angeles County is at a critical stage in reforming its juvenile justice system, which is the largest in the nation. Juvenile crime is down, and more kids than in the past are being given probation for non-serious infractions, rather than being sent to locked facilities.

Yet, still nearly 1000 young people are spending their time daily in LA County’s 3 juvenile halls or in one of its 9 probation camps that are still in operation. (It has 14 total.)

Locking kids up is a costly matter. The average daily tab to house a youth in one of LA County’s camps is $329.61. If he or she stays in camp for six months, that’s over $60,000 to keep one teenager for one-half year—far in excess of what it would cost to send that same kid to a high priced private university.

Yet, the recidivism rate of kids coming out of the camps, according to probation’s own numbers, is 40 percent. Not an encouraging success rate. Moreover, some researchers claim that the return-customer percentage is really much higher.

Five years ago, things were spectacularly worse in the campswith conditions that were, frankly, unconscionable. But, due to nearly eight years of oversight by the Department of Justice, plus several big, bad lawsuits, there have been heartening improvements.

There is still a long way to go. Even Probation Chief Jerry Powers described the design of the probation camps, in a report to the LA County Board of Supervisors, as “creat[ing] an image of a jail-like environment.”

The good news is that there’s a scheme in the works, which many believe could usher in truly profound changes in the way LA treats its law-breaking young. Officials at LA County Probation, along with participants from a gaggle of other agencies, plus university researchers, policy makers and advocates— are in the midst of hammering out the finer details of a plan to build a new kind of probation camp, a $48 million pilot project that everyone hopes will become a model that can be replicated throughout LA County’s juvenile system—and, with luck, beyond that to the rest of the state, or maybe even the nation.

As we’ve reported in the past, the new pilot facility is to be built on the site of the now-closed Camp David Kilpatrick, the system’s oldest such facility, located in the rural hills above Malibu. The idea is to transform the run-down Kilpatrick—which, prior to teardown, resembled a group of dilapidated prison barracks——into a cluster of homelike cottages that sleep a maximum of 12. Thus both the structure and the programmatic strategy of the new facility will theoretically be designed to promote rehabilitation and healing, rather than simply behavior control, as has been too often the emphasis in the past.

But the details of this brand new programming strategy—which is slated to be called The LA Model—are, in many ways, still very fluid.

Part of the issue is the fact that the project is an unusually collaborative one, with planning committees that include juvenile justice advocates from various nonprofits, along with representatives from the LA County Office of Education (LACOE), the Department of Mental Health, the Los Angeles Arts Commission, the Juvenile Court Health Services, the Department of Public Works, researchers from UCLA and Cal State LA, and so on.

And in the end, it is LA County Probation’s project, and probation is, of course, overseen by the LA County Board of Supervisors, which holds the purse strings on the enterprise. Additionally, on anything regarding staffing, probation has to answer to its unions, which—naturally—want a say in the matter.

Getting this diverse array of people, agencies, and interests to agree has reportedly been challenging. As a consequence, although progress is being made, there have been repeated delays. As it stands now, the LA Model camp is set to be completed in late 2016 and open in January 2017.


A TEAM OF UNCONVENTIONAL EXPERTS

With all of the aforementioned in mind, some of the researchers and policy advocates involved—namely a UCLA-affiliated research team working under Dr. Jorja leap (whose CV you can find here), along with policy analysts Michelle Newell and Angela Chung from the California branch of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF-CA), decided everyone might benefit from the opinions of a very different group of advisors—specifically kids who have been locked up in the probation camps, thus have personal experience with the system.

And so it was that last spring Leap’s team, together with the CDF-CA policy analysts, coordinated a series of five focus groups with 48 teenagers and young adults, each of whom had spent time in LA County’s long-troubled camps. At every meeting, the participants were asked various versions of the same question: “How can Los Angeles County’s probation camps provide a more positive experience for youth?”

The focus groups were turned out to be quite productive. So the researchers and analysts decided to go a step further. They selected five young men and women from the groups and made them “policy fellows.” The idea was that the five would help take the material gained thus far from the focus groups, and distill it, and turn the youth-generated information into a policy brief.

The fellows—three males and two females—ranged in age from 18 to 27, and collectively had spent a total of 102 months—8.5 years—in LA County’s juvenile camps. Their names are Karla Fuentes-Quiroz, Raul Barreto, Ralphica Garnett, Daniel Bisuano and James Anderson.

“Too often we have policy briefs authored by people who don’t have any real world connection with the subject,” said Dr. Jorja Leap. Everyone was pleased that this time it was different.

After their selection, the five spent several months going to workshops to learn the nuts and bolts of research, analysis and policy writing. Then they were mentored by CDF-CA’s juvenile justice policy team through the process of conceiving and writing a brief that outlined a five priorities that the youth fellows and their mentors concluded must be at the top of the list for the LA Model planners.

The completed 34-page brief—titled Rising up, Speaking Out: Youth Transforming Los angeles County’s Juvenile Justice System—was presented to the various Kilpatrick planning entities early this year, and reportedly was warmly received.

“The response has been overwhelming and positive,” said Leap. “There is tremendous support for the youth voices and how important these are in the process.”

Before we get to the details of the youth brief, however, it might be helpful to meet one of the fellows, Raul Barreto, whose backstory represents the kind of life experience that the five brought to the table.


EXPERTISE GAINED THE HARD WAY

When Raul Barreto was a pre-teen, a lot of the kids around him were joining street gangs, yet he did not. Like the other boys, he was curious about the gang world. But his over-stressed and distracted mother moved her eight children around far too often for him settle comfortably into any group—gangs included.

“My mom did her best. I love and admire her so much for that,” he said. “She always fed us. She washed our clothes. But she could never afford to stay in one place.” The frequent moving was compounded by the fact that there were no rules in the household. No boundaries, Raul said. No emphasis on school. No protective parental focus that helped her children feel secure and emotionally tethered.

It didn’t help that Raul had no dad around for most of his upbringing. When he was seven-years-old, his father vanished into prison.

In the father’s absence, Raul’s oldest brother became his role model, imparting to the younger boy the only gifts he had to give, which were primarily the ability to be tough, even when you didn’t feel tough, and instructions about how to get by on the street.

When Raul was in 8th grade, he put those lessons to work by attempting to form a clique of his own. When a boy from another clique “disrespected” Raul’s newly formed group, Raul did what he thought he had to do. He whacked the kid with a heavy chain, and was quickly arrested and charged with assault. And so it was that, at age 13, he was sentenced for nine months to an LA County probation camp.

“Basically, it was gladiator school,” said Raul of his first camp stay. The staff offered little help. “They didn’t do much more than herd people. They were essentially guards.”

Raul’s brother, who’d been to camp before him, told him how to navigate the place without being bullied. It was not honorable to back down, his older brother said, even if you got beat up, even if you got hurt badly. “There was a certain pride that I held in having never backed down,” Raul said.

Raul was sent to LA County camps a total of four times, although the last three stays were for probation violations, not for additional charges. Between camp stays, Barreto’s adored older brother, who was nineteen at the time, was arrested and sentenced to prison for more than 100 years.

The brother’s sentence slammed Barreto far more than his father’s exit had but, as with the camp fights, he took the blow with as much stoicism as he could muster.

His last stay in camp was at Camp David Gonzalez, then the system’s most progressive, volunteer-heavy facility, located in the hills off Malibu Canyon. There Barreto met a mentor who would change his life, a volunteer named Dan Seaver who ran the camp’s unique, kid-produced newspaper.

Seaver repeatedly told Raul that he was smart, and had potential, and urged him to take advantage of the camp’s various activities. “He talked to me about college. He talked to me about work. He talked to me about those and other things in a way that made them real for me,” he said.

During his stay at Gonzalez, Raul learned he had a knack for writing, and soon became the newspaper’s editor. While in camp, he also read like crazy. Fantasy was his favorite genre. “I read all the Harry Potter books, and a whole lot of others,” Raul said. “I wanted read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but they didn’t have it in the camp library.” Reading was a way he could escape from being locked up” Raul said. “It also helped me become a better writer.”

Seaver’s mentorship at Gonzales didn’t magically solve all of Barreto’s problems. It took a couple additional incarcerations, this time as an adult. It also took knowing someone who, over time, refused to give up on him.

Fast forward to the present. Raul, now has a good job working for Martin Outdoor Media, the company that sells advertising on those green bus benches that bloom around the city. He has also done some crew work in the film industry and has plans to do more.

In his off time, he does advocacy work for an organization called Anti-recidivism Coalition—or ARC—through which he makes visits to the county’s probation camps to talk to kids who remind him of his younger self, telling them not to give up, that they can do it, that it’ll be okay.

And, now of course, there is his involvement with the policy fellowship.


FIVE SUGGESTIONS FOR TRANSFORMATION

In all, the youth fellows came up with five primary areas of change that they believed were most essential.

“These are very realistic recommendations,” said Michelle Newell of the Children’s Defense Fund who, like Leap, feels that the youth-informed policy brief has been well received.

“Things have gotten a lot a lot better in the camps,” continued Newell, But, in a lot of ways, she said, they were “still operating on a punitive incarceration model.”

Probation had worked to hit all the marks that the various big lawsuits, and the years of oversight by the DOJ have required, and that has helped, Newell said. “But compliance-based reactive change isn’t going to get us where we want to go.”

Hence the brief, the five primary points of which are the following:

1. Increase the availability and diversity of programs.

• Implement programs at all camps that are youth-centered and tailored individually for a youth’s strengths, skills and interests. Programs should be scheduled in ways that encourage youth participation, making efforts to address gaps in scheduling and ensure equal access across the camps.

• Provide camp programs that prepare young people to successfully transition back into their communities, such as higher education workshops, work and technical skill-building, and job search and interviewing workshops.

• Provide high quality education in probation camps, including utilizing the 300 minutes of instructional time for supportive and advanced curriculum, better textbooks and more avenues to establish stronger credit recovery. Continue to expand successful educational models such as Road to Success Academy, a project-based learning model that was piloted in the two girls’ camps and is currently being expanded.

• Expand partnerships with community-based organizations at all camps to provide a diverse array of programs for young people to develop pro-social skills and connections with mentors (e.g., Camp Gonzales, arguably the most resourced camp,12 has many such partnerships and can serve as a model).

2. Foster mentorship and supportive relationships with probation officers.

*Hire, invest in and retain probation staff who are not trained only as guards but rather who also want to work with youth and rehabilitate them. These efforts have already begun but need to be deepened; probation should reevaluate job descriptions and hiring practices to ensure the best staff is recruited and retained.

* Train and provide technical assistance for probation staff on all levels in trauma-informed approaches, positive youth development and other therapeutic approaches to communicating, managing and working with youth. Los Angeles County should invest in trainings such as those run by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network or other violence intervention programs that prevent re-victimization and train staff in the role trauma plays in brain development, adolescent development and behavior.

*Build a mission, culture and operations centered on positive approaches to safety and building relationships, moving away from correctional approaches that emphasize control and supervision.

• Foster activities, routines and spaces for probation staff and youth to engage in positive ways (e.g., in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, at the maximum security facility for youth who have committed serious and violent crimes run by the nonprofit Alternative Rehabilitation Communities (ARC), staff sit and eat with the young people at the dining table for all meals, creating a family feel).

• Establish a working schedule for probation staff that supports a small group treatment model and is consistent with relationship building20 (e.g., reevaluate the 56-hour staffing shift and determine whether a different schedule would allow for closer relationship building with youth).

3. Cultivate the dignity of youth at camp through increased privacy, cleanliness and nutrition.

• Provide access to healthier food, more food and better quality food. This includes providing more snacks, removing expired food and having equal access to seconds (i.e., not providing reward systems for youth to have seconds).

• Increase hygiene by providing youth with individual towels and soaps, better quality hygiene products, including feminine products, cleaner and nicer clothing, and better quality and cleaner bedding (e.g., Santa Clara County’s William F. James Enhanced Ranch provides each youth his or her own regular commercial hygiene products).

• Create physical layouts of camps that provide more privacy in bathrooms (for toilets and showers), as well as dorm rooms with less crowding, homelike furniture and better quality beds (e.g., The Missouri Model created homelike pods that fit 12 youth in one setting rather than 100 beds in one dorm with a single control center.

4. Increase connections with family and community.

• Provide regular visits (i.e., more than one a week) for families and include flexible times to accommodate families’ schedules (e.g., North Carolina state facilities provide visitation seven days a week, which helps youth build closer relationships with their families.)

• Provide access to transportation, given that most probation camps are in
remote locations where public transportation does not exist. This could be through transportation stipends, rides to camps or alternative meeting places where youth are transported closer to home for supervised visits (e.g., in Virginia, the Transportation Program provides low-cost transportation for family members who need it29). Sending youth to facilities in remote areas that are not accessible to families or community services also needs to be re-evaluated.

• Create alterative mediums for families to communicate with youth, such as Skype and video chat. Camps should consider home passes or “furloughs,” which are used in many model juvenile justice programs, including Santa Clara County, California, Missouri and ARC in Pennsylvania.

• Eliminate any practices that limit or remove visitation, phone calls or mail from family as punishment.

• Create physical spaces and procedures in camp that make families feel welcomed, valued, less intimidated and open to staff interaction.

• Expand the definition of family and allow visits from non-relatives; mentors, siblings under 18 years old and other loved ones play an important role in youth’s lives and should be allowed to visit.

5. Improve camp discipline and management procedures.

End regimented, boot camp-like camp procedures (e.g., marching with hands behind the back, sitting on bunks to be counted, and running to and from buildings) that demean youth and convey control and coercion.

• End punitive practices, including solitary confinement, use of force and pepper spray, and replace them with positive behavior support systems. Nationally recognized models demonstrate successful methodologies for crisis and safety management that are not deficit-based, such as Positive Youth Development, Trauma-Informed Care, New York State’s Sanctuary Model37 and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

• Adopt practices that let youth feel normal and valued, including recognizing normal adolescent developmental milestones — celebrating birthdays, acknowledging losses such as deaths, and recognizing accomplishments, such as graduations.

• Allow for personal space and freedom by developing camp routines and structures that allow for youth to experience a sense of calmness, privacy and reflection, which is critical to their development and the progress they make with their treatment.


LIVES SAVED—AND NOT

Each of the five fellows wrote a personal introduction for one of the five categories. It is likely not a surprise that Raul was the person in charge of the chapter on relationships and mentoring.

As a part of the introduction to his section, Raul wrote the following:

“I was 13 my first time in camp and was sentenced to nine months. During those nine months I didn’t get counseling, I didn’t learn a trade or any new skills and, probably most importantly, I never made a connection with a positive adult or anyone I trusted who could give me life advice. I had myself and my peers. When I wasn’t worried about my peers doing something, I was worried about staff and vice versa. I learned to survive in so many unnecessary ways that are only useful in institutions.

“Every time I was released, I remained unguided and misinformed and, usually, I ended up recidivating. Luckily, I eventually broke that pattern. Many of the kids I met, fought with, laughed with and lived with throughout my many stays in juvenile detention are now dead, heavily drug addicted or serving life in prison.

“The difference between me and them is that during my last camp program, I met a volunteer who became my mentor, a person who until this very day will answer my call, listen to my problems and give me the best possible advice he can offer. I firmly believe it was this simple, consistent act that saved my life….

“And while my camp experience happened a lot longer ago than many other youth in the focus groups, the need for connection and mentorship continues to remain a problem for youth at camps today. My experience simply shows just how important it is when just one person makes a connection with a young person….”

Hard to argue with that.


Posted in juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, Probation | 1 Comment »

« Previous Entries