Last month we reported that LA County’s juvenile probation camps were in “full compliance” with the 73 reforms demanded by the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, after six years of DOJ oversight.
At least, they were in compliance according to the DOJ monitors and according to probation’s own accounting. Having finally met the goals set out by the feds seemed like—and in many ways is—laudable progress.
The bad old days that brought the DOJ into the camps in the first place, were very bad indeed. And probation has worked hard to make improvements, for which they should be given lots of credit.
BUT THEN ANOTHER SHOE DROPPED….
On Monday April 6, however, the LA County Auditor-Controller’s office put out their own report about the matter of probation’s compliance in the department’s 16 operational juvenile camps and facilities. WitnessLA has obtained that report.
So was probation in compliance according to A-C’s assessment?
The A-C’s answer: Uh, no.
Here’s the deal: At the direction of the LA County Board of Supervisors, the Auditor-Controller was following behind the federal monitors, double checking to see what was in compliance and what still needed work. The Auditor-Controller’s monitors were not looking at all the items on the DOJ’s check list. They were only keeping tabs on seven provisions of the feds’ list that had been some of the main sticking points near the end of the DOJ’s oversight.
And out of those seven how did probation do? According to the Auditor-Controller’s assessment: not very well.
“Probation did not maintain substantial compliance for six (86%) of the seven provisions reviewed. The areas of non-compliance noted in our review centered on Probation not ensuring their staff complete the ongoing training required by many of the provisions reviewed.
Among the areas where probation reportedly failed to fully comply are the following:
THE MATTER OF REHABILITATION
One of the most important areas in which the DOJ monitors asked for substantial change was article #17, which requires Probation to:
“…provide formal daily programming that incorporates education, recreation, and specialized rehabilitative and/or treatment programs for the minors and incorporate a points-driven behavior management program that addresses negative behavior and rewards positive behavior.”
Number 17 was considered so important because, as probation’s deputy chief, Felicia Cotton said when we talked last month, during the problematic years that so appalled the DOJ, and precipitated their oversight, there was very little that was rehabilitative going on at the camps.
“We used to use a system of custody and control,” Cotton told me. “That’s what it was all about.” And, she said, “…you had kids who rebelled against that kind of control, with not much to lose. And you can’t blame them. That’s not the best approach for angry, traumatized kids.”
Exactly. And, in response to DOJ pressure, probation did finally launch the various required rehabilitative programs,—with more programs still to come. But, according to the Auditor-Controller’s report, there are several problems with the programs’ implementation.
For one thing, the DOJ specified that the staff needed to make sure that the kids in camp actually attended the various classes and activities.
In ten out of the 15 camps that had the programs, the A-C’s report found little or no problem. But in four of the facilities in particular, 30 percent of the kids didn’t attend their classes, and another 36 percent of the kids only attended some of their classes. (They were required to attend 80 percent.)
The A-C monitors also reported that in five of the camps some of the staff reportedly failed to honor the reward system. For instance, they would wrongly reward kids. And in four of the camps, staff would delay rewards and “promotions” for the kids who had actually earned them.
This may sound petty, but for already traumatized kids who are angry and acting out, the adults absolutely must be consistent and trustworthy if any rehabilitation is going to take place.
When the adults can’t keep their collective word, the effect is psychologically corrosive, and you are guaranteed to have problems.
HANDLING KIDS WHO ARE SUICIDE RISKS
On the topic of suicidal kids, the A-C’s people noted that an average of 30 percent of the staff in the 16 camps/units didn’t complete the required training in suicide prevention that teaches them “how to prevent and respond to crises.”
Perhaps that lack of training and understanding accounts for why, later in the report, the A-C monitors noted that, at one camp, in 14 of the staff shifts reviewed, “the managers at one specialized unit did not insure that staff completed Safety Check Sheets for each eight-hour shift.” These were the check sheets that made certain staff were properly looking in on a kid with “persistent suicidal ideation” housed in a SHU—or isolation cell.
Elsewhere in the report, the monitors also found that, in two instances, kids were kept in the SHU for over 8 hours without appropriate documentation. Considering that, right now, the state legislature is considering a bill (SB 124) that would severely limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, hyper-vigilence regarding the proper use of the SHU in LA’s juvenile camps would seem to be a prudent course.
UNDERSTANDING KIDS WITH MENTAL ILLNESS AND DISABILITIES
According to the report, the camp staff did slightly better in attending the training designed to give them the “skills and information necessary to understand behaviors of, engage in appropriate interactions with, and respond to needs of youth with mental illness and developmental disabilities.”
Still, however, 20 percent of the staff, according to the A-C, did NOT attend the training.
Even more staff (23 percent or more) in 13 of the 16 facilities appeared to blow off—or not be offered—the required training that would have informed them of the proper “policies, practices, and procedures to define those circumstances in which staff must report allegations of child abuse or neglect to the appropriate external agencies.”
In other words, one fifth or more of the staff in a paramilitary organization that oversees the wellbeing of troubled kids did not manage to get the absolutely required training..
We hate to be harsh, but really. Those of us who have taught at either public or private universities—even as guest lecturers—know that if we haven’t completed the required sexual harassment training we cannot walk into a classroom. Period.
In the camps, the stakes are far higher, and the training is even more critical.
In the case of LA County’s juvenile probation facilities, changing what was a very problematic culture inside the camps that, for years, allowed real abuse to take place, is not an easy process. Training is a big part of making that change.
Included in the Auditor-Controller’s report is a rebuttal from Probation Chief Jerry Powers, who writes that probation “does not agree” with four of the listed six problem areas.
Probation did agree with two of the report’s noncompliance items having to do with the failure of a big chunk of the staff to get required training. One of the “agreements” centered around training that helped staff members better understand “youth with mental illness and developmental disabilities.” Powers basically wrote that, while they weren’t in full compliance, they would be soon.
In the case of the required regular training to give staff “the knowledge and skills needed to effectively manage youth, including de-escalation techniques, crisis interuention, youth development, and supervision,” Powers said there was a scheduling conflict. (It’s more complicated, but that was the bottom line.) But probation will be catching up on the training this year.
As for the other four categories, probation said it is in compliance.
So who’s right? Hard to say. We have calls into both probation and the A-C’s office and didn’t hear back from either in time for publication.
However, at the end of the A-C’s report, in a rebuttal to the rebuttal, Auditor-Controller John Naimo had this to say:
“…we completed our review using the monitoring tools developed by Probation and the DOJ Monitor, and in accordance with the training Probation provided. ln addition, we provided Probation copies of our monitoring tools with the details of our audit results, and the Department did not provide documentation to invalidate our results.
“We also attempted to validate Probation’s results for a sample of provisions to determine why the results of our reviews were different. However, the Department did not maintain sufficient documentation to support the results of their reviews, which prevented us from identifying the cause of the differences.”
A MOTION BY SUPERVISOR MARK RIDLEY-THOMAS
This past Tuesday, a motion to launch a new fiscal audit of the probation department was introduced by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas with support of Supervisor Mike Antonovich.
The motion, which is to be voted on by the board next week, proposes an audit that would look at, among other things:
*The current cost of operating the camps and halls including the cost per youth, annual maintenance costs and deferred building maintenance costs…”
*Recruitment, examination, hiring and promotional practices to determine whether the Department is effectively recruiting, retaining and promoting the most qualified staff for its operating needs”
*”The Department’s Request for Proposal procedures and its process for examining satisfactory compliance with the statements of work for contracted community-based organizations and agencies.”
When I spoke to Ridley-Thomas about his reason for the motion, he said that although he didn’t make the motion with the Auditor-Controller’s report in mind, he made it “with concern about these issues that the report raises in mind.”
UCLA’s Dr. Jorja Leap, who has been a part of various studies examining aspects of the juvenile camps, had something similar about the Auditor-Controller’s report:
“There is no sign off from vigilance,” Leap said. “It is to the county’s credit that they are carefully examining what occurs in probation camps in an ongoing manner. In particular, there needs to be a consideration of the mental health needs of all youth — something that continues to be sadly lacking!”
So there you have it: Progress has been made. But, perhaps not quite as much as probation hopes. And ongoing oversight would be wise.