On Tuesday, May 21, a large group of Los Angeles County probation officers who work in the county’s juvenile halls and youth camps, plus representatives from their three unions, showed up at the board of supervisors meeting and spoke to the board with the intent of delivering a single message.
Enough is Enough. It is past time for you to keep us safe at work!
Some speakers actually used those exact words, but everyone conveyed the message.
Both staff and kids were getting hurt, they said. People were exhausted by repeatedly working double shifts because those who were supposed to relieve them were too fearful, or discouraged to come to work, so they were “calling out sick.” Kids weren’t getting the programs they needed because the facilities were simply not safe.
It’s been bad before, at times, but never this bad, speaker after speaker told the board.
“More than 33 years ago, I joined the LA County Probation Department because I really wanted to make a difference,” said Deborah Lares, who represented AFSCME Local 1967, the managers union, and was one of those who spoke at the board meeting.
“My sister was in and out of juvenile hall as a kid, and I really wanted to work with at-risk youth who are having problems,” Lares said.
But after those 33 plus years, she was to the point that she was ready to just “pack it up.”
Lares described the majority of the staff as being terrified to use even the most minor or appropriate kind of discipline when a kid’s behavior veers out of control.
They are “terrified of getting fired. Just plain terrified.”
The kids in the facilities were “in crisis… and so is the staff,” Lares said, describing the youth and those who work with them as traumatized by what has been occurring.
Staff were getting hurt, and so were kids. Officers “go home and can’t sleep.”
Then the next day when officers are expected to show up at work, many of them just don’t.
Some kids in the county’s juvenile halls were dangerous, Lares said, “but most are just very vulnerable.”
Yet, with present conditions, the staff in the juvenile facilities feel unable to protect anybody.
Jim Schoengarth, president of SEIU Local 721, which represents the supervising officers working at probation, conveyed a similar message. On Monday, he said, one the supervisors working in a girls’ unit at one of the halls, “was taken out on a stretcher after girls in the unit “intentionally spilled soap on the floor, causing the supervisor to slip and seriously injure her hip.”
Mental health staff members are freaked for “fear of being assaulted,” Schoengarth, who is not generally known to be extreme in his perspectives.
Teachers and medical staff are also fearful because of the uncontrolled behavior on the part of some of the youth, he said.
Property damage in some of the facilities is extensive, said Schoengart.
Windows are shattered, doors kicked in, computers and phones completely destroyed, ceiling and wall tiles punched inward, or torn out of their frames, bathrooms completely flooded, competing gang graffiti is scrawled across walls and other surfaces.
“Whether you have children or not,” Schoengarth concluded, “you know that we would never allow this behavior in our homes. So why are we allowing this behavior in our facilities?”
One after the other, those who spoke seemed to be drawing a collective line in the sand.
“Thirteen years ago, after being a school bus driver for 23 years, I made a decision to help kids change themselves and applied for a job with the LA County Probation Department,” said Stacy Ford, Camps Vice Present for AFSCME Local 685. “I am currently assigned to Camp Scott in Santa Clarita, helping young women achieve a second chance in life.”
But it 13 years, Ford said, he’d never seen a situation like he is seeing now. “It is a disaster.”
As to who was to blame, several months ago, unhappy probation staff members seemed to feel their needs were misunderstood by nearly everyone else, most notably the county’s youth advocates, the probation commission, and the Probation Reform and Implementation Team—or PRIT-–the ad hoc panel that had been created by the board of supervisors to generate a general design for reform, and a civilian oversight commission that would serve as the watchdog for the nation’s largest probation department.
Yet, within the last month or so, the us–versus-them adversarial divide seemed mostly to have vanished.
“The probation commission gets it,” several staff members told us.
It also helped that the PRIT’s recent report, which featured a plan for the phase-out of pepper spray in the county’s youth facilities, made a point of emphasizing the need for officer safety, along with the safety and well being of the kids in the county’s care—which was, appropriately, the PRIT’s first priority.
At Tuesday’s board meeting, it was probation’s leadership that was now the primary object of the speakers’ frustration and anger.
Hitting a breaking point
The crisis that was expressed to the board of supervisors has been building for more than a year, yet on Sunday, April 22—around a month to the day before Tuesday’s meeting—everything seemed to hit a breaking point.
That was the day that an experienced Detention Service Officer working at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar called Probation Chief Terri McDonald early in the morning and, not reaching her, left an emotional message asking that the Probation Commissioners——specifically the probation commission’s president, Joe Gardner—come to visit “Barry J” as it is known, “to see the chaos that is going on at the hall.”
The kids are out of control, the very upset DSO said in her message, according to an internal email sent later, by McDonald’s assistant, which WitnessLA has obtained.
Staff members were “calling out sick” and quitting, in large numbers.
“The commissioners need to see what is really going on over here!” said the caller.
The DSO also said there would be “a massive employee walk-out” if no one showed up forthwith to see what was what.
McDonald’s assistant passed on the message from the upset DSO to Chief Deputy Sheila Mitchell, who then passed the message to Gardner.
Gardner went to Barry J two days later, on Tuesday, April 23.
His subsequent report to Chief McDonald was alarming.
(WitnessLA acquired Gardner’s report shortly after it was sent.)
“As you may recall,” wrote Gardner to the chief, “we sent you a previous notification about conditions at [Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall] on October 8, 2018. Members of the Probation Commission advised you that the conditions in the hall were extremely unsafe both for the youth housed there and the staff. Since then, it would appear conditions have worsened.”
Gardner went on to describe the out of control and drastically understaffed situation at the hall in three pages of single-spaced detail, accompanied by another 19 pages of disturbing photos.
The email included photos of a kicked-in fire extinguisher case, windows and wall panels that are now boarded up with sheets of plywood, several rooms featuring floors littered with the kind of recently broken debris that could easily be turned into shanks—and more of that nature.
Gardner also told how he had learned that 77 kids had arrived at Barry J in the last month from Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall. (Los Padrinos is soon to be shut down.)
Yet, no staff, Gardner said he had learned, had been sent from Los Padrinos to assist with the supervision of the newly transferred 77 kids.
Gardner also learned that about 85 members of Barry J’s staff were on “injured on duty” status, meaning there were critical staff shortages even before the extra 77 kids arrived.
With the worsening of the staffing crisis, one of the supervisors told Gardner that she has had to “hold over” 25 staff in the last several days, meaning those officers would have to work two back-to-back shifts.
These over-tired staff members worked knowing that, if a fight broke out, any emergency call they put out, may or may not get answered, wrote Gardner. And even if the emergency calls were answered, there would be a delay.
Meanwhile, Gardner wrote, there appeared to be a lot of fear and confusion “about when to apply use-of-force,” no matter how extreme the situation.
As a consequence, Gardner reported, in a recent incident in which a kid escaped from a building and “climbed” onto a goalpost in the yard, “then refused to come down,” staff simply kept a safety watch on the kid for multiple hours, but did nothing to actually get the boy down from the top of the goal post.
Stories we hear from probation sources about the high number of staff members working double shifts have been steadily increasing over the last year, at all three of the juvenile halls.
Stacy Ford of AFSCME Local 685, told us about several recent occasions when he has delivered boxes of pizza to tired and hungry staff members asked to stay over, giving them no time to eat.
On Tuesday, he told one of those stories to the supervisors. “On Sunday morning, May 5,” he said, “I was home and received at least five phone calls from DSOs on 18-22 hour shifts pleading with me to get them out.”
On his own day off, Ford drove to the particular facility. In one unit, he said, he was met by a Detention Service Officer “who looked like he was going to fall asleep.” Ford asked him how many hours had he worked?
“Sir, I’m on 22 hours,” the man told Ford, who took over his position “for the duration of his shift.”
A probation source told us a similar story about how, on a recent weekend, the source was unable to take a bathroom break until the first eight-hour shift was over. Then after the bathroom break, the source had to return right away for another shift, because—once again—too many people had called to say they were staying home.
“We can’t take a break for lunch, so we bring snacks in the pockets of our pants,” our source told us.
“People are working 18 hours, 20 hours. What else are we supposed to do?”
One of the most painful stories the board heard on Tuesday had to do with an email sent recently to the union by a female supervisor.
“My shift is 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.,” the supervisor wrote. “I have been watching a Level 3 juvenile all night. It is now 7:42 a.m. and I am writing this email.”
She explained that level 3 kids are considered to be the most high risk of those supervised in the halls, and “typically” on suicide watch.
“I am still supervising the same Level 3,” she continued, “even though the directive states that staff are not to do two shifts on the same Level 3.” (Instead, regulations say that the staff member must move to another position for the safety and security of the kid.)
No one bothered to tell her she was being held over, she wrote. When she called the unit that is known as movement and control to find out what was going on, she said she was told “they are working on getting some relief for me,” she said.
“Because I am now held over, I guess against my will,” the DSO continued, “I am unable to take my medication. Last week the same thing happened to me; I did not leave the facility until 4:30 pm. It was too late for me to drive home in Friday traffic, so I got something to eat and slept in my car until my 10 p.m. shift.
To make matters far worse, she has a 9-year-old son, the officer continued. “When I am kept like this, my son misses school. I have had to sit down with the principal on many different occasions to talk about why my son is so late to school and missing so many days.”
The problems are not reserved for the three juvenile halls.
The county’s model facility, Campus Kilpatrick, is now reportedly having its own daunting list of problems, including a “significant” increase in violence, Ford told us.
We heard from other department sources that even the Department of Mental Health has had difficulty with suddenly “out of control” Kilpatrick probationers. And last week probation staff “could not get kids back from the gym.”
(Kilpatrick’s kids are not, by the way, living at Campus Kilpatrick, but have been moved to another vacant camp in Lancaster since they were forced to evacuate the facility in November 2018 as the Woolsey fire approached. )
“Without safety, the youth in our care cannot benefit from the services that are provided by our community-based organizations, our mental health professionals, teachers, and medical staff,” said Ford on Tuesday, gazing grimly at the board. Even religious services often have to be canceled, he said.
“We are asking that this board take immediate action.”
Main photo officers at the board of supervisors meeting by Cookie Lommel, of LA County Deputy Probation Officers’ Union Local 685