California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has announced a legal settlement with Los Angeles County, and also with the LA County Office of Education (LACOE), that together require a transformation in the way the county treats the kids in its two juvenile halls.
The dual settlements have come after the state’s Department of Justice engaged in a deep probe, beginning in October 2018, looking at how LA County treats the kids in its youth detention facilities — namely its two juvenile halls, Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall located in Sylmar, and Central Juvenile Hall, located northeast of downtown LA.
As part of the investigation, the investigators from the office of AG Becerra (who is about to become President-elect Joe Biden’s Secretary of Health & Human Services) conducted multiple site visits, interviewed more than 80 witnesses, and “reviewed thousands of pages of documents.”
What the investigation turned up was not good.
The problems calling out for correction are outlined in the legal complaint, which led to the brand new settlement. Among the most critical issues the DOJ found, was their documentation of the county’s widespread pattern of an insufficiency of services for kids, and a pattern of endangering youth safety, including the following:
–– At both of the County’s Juvenile Halls, some staff employ unlawful, excessive physical and chemical force against detained youth.
— In several of the incidents, the complaint notes, excessive use of force in the juvenile halls has led to criminal prosecution of staff involved. For example, on April 24, 2016, video revealed four probation officers in BJN beating a non-combative 17-year-old youth for two minutes while a supervisor watched. (WitnessLA originally broke the story of this beating.)
Witnesses have reported, according to the investigators, excessive and inappropriate use of force incidents, including
youth being slammed to the floor when they were not resisting or engaging in any physical aggression.
And at both Juvenile Halls, the complaint reports, youth have frequently experienced unlawful use of OC spray (pepper spray) when no such high level crisis intervention was called for or permitted.
In a 2019 report by the Office of the Inspector General, the complaint notes, “one witness familiar with conditions in the juvenile halls stated that some supervisors were telling unit staff to ‘spray first and ask questions later.'”
There is also a section about youth who were sprayed not being allowed by staff to decontaminate properly and in a timely way from the spray. (WLA has written about such incidents, including this alarming 2019 allegation, and its accompanying lawsuit, that continues to move forward.)
Interestingly, the complaint notes that the board of supervisors drafted a plan in June 2019 to phase out OC spray, “with an estimated cost to Probation of nearly $39 million.” As of now, however, according to the AG’s investigators, the board has reportedly not fully funded the plan.
When it comes to youth safety, the complaint reported incidents at both of the halls, such as the teenage boy at Central Juvenile Hall, who reported that staff set him up for assault by moving him to a unit with known “enemies” and then failed to stop the assault after it began.
And so on.
Although there was a lot documented having to do with the safety for the youth in the two halls, many of the complaint’s main concerns were in the arena of education, programming, and the living environment that the two juvenile halls provided for kids, which the complaint described as often being in blatant violation of state codes.
Ignoring the rules?
The county’s juvenile halls, stated the DOJ complaint, are required to be “safe and supportive homelike environment[s]” that are not treated as “penal institution[s],” according to the state’s Welfare and Institution Code. Instead, reported the investigators, the environment in both of the county’s juvenile halls is “unsafe, unsupportive, and unsuitable for youth.”
State investigators further found that the county has subjected the resident kids to “conditions of confinement that must be reserved for adult penal institutions,” and that youth were regularly deprived “of their basic needs,” including outside exercise, programming, religious services, and adequate and timely medical care and mental health care,
“Room confinement,” the complaint states, is used improperly for punishment in violation of California law, including with respect to youth with disabilities.
Another interesting finding had to do with staffing. The complaint was critical of LA County Probation for not developing g a plan for recruiting and hiring staff “with a focus on youth development, expertise in working with youth with mental illness, and with common life experience and language that enhance the ability to relate to and supervise youth.”
They quoted a report from the LA County Attorney General’s office AG’s office which outlined how probation places “new hires with the least experience, training, and education” in the two juvenile halls first, as part of a step process to promotion to the youth camps, and then the adult field services, an issue that many staff members have mentioned in the past. This means, said the IG’s report, that staff members who may not be interested in or have the proclivity for with youth, are put in the halls, instead of seasoned staff who truly want to work with youth, and who are good at it.
When it came to the physical facilities themselves, the complaint was scathing. Both Central Juvenile and Barry J were in need of serious “repairs, renovations, and remodeling.” The individual rooms and the collective areas were described as “counter-therapeutic” in the extreme. Rather than helping to “stabilize and enhance the youth’s functional abilities,” the environments likely “contribute to the youth irritability and overall behavioral issues,” stated the head of the county’s Department of Mental Health.
There’s lots more, but the bottom line is that, as a result of the state’s investigation and resulting legal complaint, the AG’s office has entered into a settlement in which the County of Los Angeles — including its Probation Department, Department of Mental Health, and Department of Health Services — along with the Los Angeles County Office of Education — has agreed to take a wide range of corrective actions, which will be overseen by an independent monitor and at least two subject matter experts. LACOE and the county have four years to hit all the marks that are laid out by the settlement.
“One of our core duties as a society is to lay the foundation for our children to build a better future,” said Attorney General Becerra when the settlement was announced on Thursday.
“That has to be at the center of what we do as government when youth are entrusted to our care,” he said. “Regardless of what got them there, our youth deserve a chance to prepare themselves to launch a better life. We cannot condone or ignore any system that allows our kids to be mistreated or dehumanized. I applaud the county for working with us to correct the wrongs uncovered by our investigation and committing to help these youth get the resources they need.”
And, just FYI: we were interested to know how many of the stories that WitnessLA investigated and broke exclusively were among the problems that the investigators and the AG’s legal complaint believed were critical enough to highlight. (We noted a couple for readers, but there were more.)
The series of goals that the county is required to meet include the following:
*Homelike environment and operations, ensuring youth are housed in warm, homelike living units
*Technology and data management, facilitating data collection and analysis required to demonstrate compliance with the settlements and allow for adequate ongoing internal review
*Use of force and youth safety, limiting use of force, as well as requiring de-escalation and outside oversight and review of incidents
*Trauma-informed and positive behavior approaches, enhancing holistic efforts to support youth
*Improving practices and safeguards to ensure youth are not unlawfully confined to their rooms;
Basic living needs and juvenile hall conditions, including the provision of necessities such as hygiene items, bedding, and access to the bathroom
*Programming, recreation, exercise, religious services, visitation, and telephone calls, ensuring and documenting that youth have access to legally required programs
*Mental health, medical care, and treatment plans, ensuring timely medical and mental healthcare
*Education, transition, and after-care, ensuring youth are provided appropriate education time and improving the process for transitioning youth back to school in the community
*Staffing, hiring, and training, requiring sufficient staffing and training to comply with the settlements
*Oversight and grievance systems, providing a trustworthy avenue for youth to get problems addressed
*Compensatory services for youth, helping fill the gap for youth who were improperly denied education during their detention.
“This groundbreaking settlement opens a new chapter in Los Angeles County’s commitment to serving the young people in our care,” said LA County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda L. Solis in a statement. “It is an important element in the extensive juvenile justice reforms underway to ensure that while these youth are in the County’s camps and halls, they receive the support and education they deserve in a non-punitive environment.”
And in related news elsewhere in the state
Last month, Becerra also took legal action to ensure compliance with a court order aimed at protecting children from abuse and neglect in Humboldt County.
The AG also secured settlements with school districts in Barstow, Oroville, Sausalito Marin City School District, Stockton, and the Mojave Unified School District. to address, “discriminatory treatment of students based on race and disability status.”
To further cover like problems around California, Becerra issued an alert to all school districts in the state reminding school leaders of their obligation to “protect the civil rights of students,” especially in the face of ongoing reports indicating that implicit bias among school administrators leads to students of color, and those with disabilities “being disproportionately subjected to disciplinary action.”
Anyone who sees what they perceive to be a violation of state or federal law involving youth, may report them to the DOJ’s Bureau of Children’s Justice, via an online complaint system. Or they may submit a complaint by email at firstname.lastname@example.org