Unsuitable 4 Youth

In startling & historic vote, state board finds LA County’s two juvenile halls “unsuitable for youth habitation.”

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

At exactly 1:15 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, September 17, the California Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) voted unanimously that Los Angeles County Probation’s two juvenile halls — Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall and Central Juvenile Hall — were out of compliance when it came to multiple basic standards of care. Thus, these two facilities were declared “unsuitable for youth habitation.”

In other words, they were not safe places for kids to be living.

The BSCC, for those unfamiliar, is an independent agency created by state law to provide “leadership to the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems.”

Moreover, the BSCC also has significant powers given it by state law. One of its required jobs is to inspect the various counties’ adult and juvenile detention facilities to make sure they are in compliance with California’s legal standards. And, if they are not in compliance, to lower the necessary boom.

And so it was that, after months of inspections, and resulting reports pointing repeatedly to changes LA County urgently needed to make, on Thursday, the board members found they had no way to avoid voting to declare Barry J. and Central, as the county’s two remaining juvenile halls are called, unsuitable for kids.

“We are now in uncharted waters,” said Aaron McGuire, the BSCC’s legal counsel, right before the vote, his expression decidedly grim. “The BSCC has never done this before.”

It is relevant to note here that the while the BSCC  includes a few justice advocates among its number, the majority lean in a more traditional direction.

For instance, Kathleen Allison, the Secretary of CDCR (the state’s prison system) is a member of the BSCC, as is Guillermo Viera Rosa, the Director of California Adult Parole Operations. Sheriff Dean Growdon of Lassen County is a member, along with Andrew Mills, Santa Cruz’s Chief of Police, plus several present or former probation chiefs, including the board’s Chair, Linda Penner, the former Chief of Fresno’s Department of Probation.

Nevertheless, at Thursday’s meeting, all assembled appeared determined to make the right call, even though some of the BSCC members looked a bit gobsmacked as they proceeded toward their historic decision.

Yet despite the BSCC’s unprecedented action, LA County will have 60 days to remedy the situation by coming fully into compliance when it is reexamined by the board’s inspectors.

However, if by the end of those 60 days, or thereabouts, if LA County Probation is still not hitting the required marks, the kids in the two halls will have to be relocated to some other place that is better able to follow the State of California’s set of basic regulations designed to protect the safety and well-being of the teenagers in the county’s care.

Where that might be is not at all clear.

Missed medications, physical restraints, time in solitary, and more

The main areas in which one or both of the two juvenile halls were out of compliance had to do with the mental and physical health of the kids who reside in the facilities.

For instance, at Barry J., staff members failed to keep accurate and up to date information on the medication that was prescribed for kids in the facility, and if medication was prescribed, whether the youth in residence were actually given the meds they were supposed to be taking, or not.

Another out-of-compliance area was the failure to do a medical exam in a timely fashion when kids were admitted to the halls. Presumably, staff had no way of knowing if the child had asthma, or bad allergies (that, if ignored, could trigger anaphylaxis), or if a kid was pregnant, or if there was any other of a zillion medical or physical needs that ought to be addressed.

And there were more problem areas after those two.

At Central Juvenile Hall, one of the categories that was out of compliance, in addition to those relating to physical health, medication, and the use of psychotropic drugs, was the matter of documenting the rationale for the use of physical restraints that are sometimes used to transport kids around the facility.

One more problem area had to do with what is called “room confinement,” which is theoretically a more therapeutic form of solitary confinement, which the state mostly outlawed some years ago.

In any case, room confinement cannot, legally, be used for “punishment, coercion, convenience, or retaliation,” but only for reasons of safety. Thus, when the “Hope Center” is appropriately used, as the confinement area at Central Juvenile Hall is called, it requires documentation justifying why the kid has been isolated, along with a plan for what is to be accomplished in order to return the youth to his or her unit. 

In the most recent inspection — which took place on Wednesday, September 15 — kids had been put into room confinement 13 times during the period examined.

In seven out of those 13 instances, there was proper documentation indicating why the youth had been isolated. In the other six instances, there was no proper documentation — Central Juvenile Hall was out of compliance.

In other words, in just under half of the instances (46 percent) we have no way of knowing if the room confinement was called for, or if it was simply a form of punishment, or an artifact of bad temper or frustration on the part of a staff member.

At Barry J., in the categories of physical restraints for transport, and room confinement, the facility wasn’t exactly deemed out of compliance, but nor could the examiners prove that the facility was now in compliance from earlier findings of being out of compliance. So the inspectors asked the board to leave the catagory “open,” to be revisited.

The milk carton factor

Before the matter came to a vote, the BSCC board members heard public comment from various youth justice experts and advocates who mentioned other areas of serious concern that did not seem to be covered by the BSCC’s check list, and that, if true, pointed beyond themselves to other disturbing problems.

Regulations are being violated every single day,” said attorney Aditi Sherikar of the Children’s Defense Fund of California, who described accounts from kids who said they hoarded empty milk cartons to use for “urination,” because staff members so often declined to let them out of their rooms to use the bathroom in a timely fashion.

The milk carton issue was also mentioned by several youth advocates from the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), who said that they too had talked to kids who also told them that, when all else failed, and they had no milk cartons, they used the towels in their rooms in order to urinate, which in turn made their rooms smell like urine.


“Frankly, it’s shocking that this is the first time that the issue of unsuitability has come before this board, said Renee Menart, policy analyst for the Center on Juvenile Criminal Justice (CJCJ).

Laura Ridolfi, a former youth public defender who works for the W. Haywood Burns Institute, expressed a similar sentiment.

“They’ve been given ample opportunity to make the necessary changes.” she said. Now, added Ridolfi, “anything but a finding of unsuitability will threaten the board’s credibility.”

One of the big questions that the report and the vote did not address is why in the world these corrections have not made a long time ago, particularly in view of the fact that, in January of this year, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced a legal settlement with LA County requiring a fundamental transformation in the way that Los Angeles County Probation, and the LA County Office of Education (LACOE) treats the kids in Barry J. and Central.

The settlement came after the state’s DOJ engaged in a deep probe into conditions in the two halls, beginning in October 2018, in order to determine how well or poorly LA County treats the kids in its youth detention facilities. And what the DOJ found wasn’t good.

So why, eight months after the CA DOJ settlement was signed, are conditions at those same two youth facilities still so bad that the Board of State and Community Corrections had no other choice but to legally declare them unsuitable for youth habitation?

Forms of motivation

Board member Scott Budnick, the founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, had some thoughts on the question.

Budnick, a film producer turned justice advocate, was on a plane at the exact moment the vote took place, but sent a written statement to BSCC chair Linda Penner before he left.

(He also kindly texted the statement to WitnessLA while he was airborne.)

“I began going into Barry J. Nidorf juvenile hall in February 2004, and have been inside almost every week for the last 17 years,” Budnick wrote.

“I know most of the staff in the facility, and have made friendships with many of the Probation staff who deeply care about the kids in their care.”

Yet, despite the many talented and caring people on staff, some kind of hardcore pressure is needed at this moment if anything is to change, according to Budnick.

“After having months and years to correct these issues, it is clear that there are those in LA County Probation that are not taking this seriously, and have undermined the last Probation Chiefs and will continue to undermine Chief Gonzales.”

(Budnick was referring to Adolfo Gonzalez, the new and well-liked Chief of LA County Probation who took the helm of the chronically troubled agency on February 1, 2021, after serving as the reformer head of San Diego County Probation.)

“I want the Chief to have the power to tell his staff… ‘you have 60 days to get this right, or facilities will close and jobs will be lost,’ ” Budnick said at the close of his statement.

“Sometimes doing the right things for kids doesn’t motivate everyone, and for those that it doesn’t, hopefully the potential loss of jobs will.”

Budnick’s remarks reflect similar statements from a wide variety of WitnessLA’s sources, who have long described a toxic culture among some department members who still manage to occupy positions of leadership on the youth side of probation’s hierarchical ladder. And it is that toxic culture (which WLA in part described here), that has stood in the way of the kind of reforms that many staff members and youth advocates have repeatedly stated are critical.

Furthermore, even if Thursday’s gun-to-the-head vote gets probation to come into compliance in the named categories,  according to Dr. Jorja Leap professor at UCLA’s Luskin School, a great deal more is required.

“This is an important step,” Leap told us, ” but it is far from the only step needed for the transformation of the Los Angeles County Probation Department.”

No kidding.

Obviously this story has more important chapters ahead so….stay tuned.


  • LA will be an official war zone when the halls close. I work at BJN in the Hope Center. Good luck three huggers you will reap what you sowed.

  • Another Celeste freeman story, Wish the story had some true honesty to it. Instead you hear the testimony of individuals who advocated many propositions and reforms which have raised the crime rate in California and produced countless of victims of crime and violence. You really should report on these “kids” crime they committed in there communities due to there reform.. Better yet, all of these advocates need to take 10 of these kids home with them. Let’s see how well you’ll do.

  • Here we go again. Just another embarrassment for this Department. Chief Gonzales must be supported by the Board of Supervisors and allowed to make the necessary changes, including terminations, to fix the managerial deficiencies in this organization.

    Colleagues tell me that during the live feed of the BSSC Meeting on the 16th that Chief Gonzales acted very much like a professional and listened intently and took notes while Delila Alcantara played with her cell phone. It was obvious that she lacks the intelligence to recognize the importance of this hearing. Alcantara and her cronies have never been held accountable for the many scandals and mismanagement and this must stop now. If by some miracle Probation becomes complaint within the 60-day window, it is obvious to me that Alcantara lacks the skills and commitment to continue the levels of compliance. Keep in mind that the state sets the minimum standards which is a level that is less than ideal.

    Alcantara must be removed immediately. Her removal will send a strong signal to both the BSCC and the Probation Department that incompetence and a lack of accountability is no longer the norm.

  • Not much in the hearing or the vote were a surprise. Same issues and deficiencies that have existed for years. But what’s next? How does the Chief demonstrate that he is genuinely committed to making the necessary hard choices? Does he move Alcantara or remove her from the Department? What is the status on the last investigation that she was involved in for failure to report child abuse? How many chances does she get and WHY does she still get them? Who is protecting her? Will the BOS allow him to run the department or does he have to ask permission? Frankly, she must be held accountable and leave the department. Gonzalez must show that is willing to move AND discipline the Bureau Chief and both Superintendents either by suspension or demotion. He can’t possible put his trust in them to resolve this during the next 60 days. They failed the original audit, could not make changes for the final report, failed to pass the corrective action and then could not even pass during the last ditch effort. Why would things change now? I can only hope that the Chief makes good choices. If he doesn’t, he will just be another failure in a long line of failures.

  • Well, the truth of the items mentioned in the article, and at public comment, lies somewhere in the middle. Its a nice change that the line staff are not being crucified. This issue truly lies with management. I’ve been at Sylmar for almost 20 years. Things have gotten worse and worse. The good news is that there are some newer staff that really want to make a difference. We all knew the BSCC audit was occurring and that we were having issues. However, our directors led us to believe that it was no big deal. Assistant Superintendent Roman just kept laughing it off and said it was no big deal. Since she is Alcantara’s “girl” we figured she knew we were going to pass. The superintendent, Sanders, literally kept telling us “we are LA County. We are going to pass. Don’t worry about it.” SDSO Norwood and the audit team from Downey kept raising issues and sounding the alarm, but no one wanted to listen. We are begging for leadership and ethical actions. We are waiting on the Chief to help us. We can’t wait much longer.

  • I think this was planed by Alcantara and her cronies to make Gonzalez look bad. We have stupid systems in place. None of the line staff know BSCC like we sould. All of the experts are assigned to some aud unit at HQ and come critizice us after the fact. Why don’t they just teach us how to do it right in the first place? Even the supervisors have no idea how to do it right. It’s embarrassing.

  • Some of these comments are a joke. Not sure what remodling buildings or the crime rate has to do with abiding by regulations. None of that has to do with how we do our jobs. I didn’t join this department to abuse minors or treat them like crap. I really want to make a difference. I can’t control what minors do in the community, but I can make sure that I treat them with dignity while we have them. It gets harder and harder to get motivated when our bosses leave us hanging in the wind. The lack of importance that they put on BSCC does not drive people to enforce the regulations. We need leaders with dignity, respect, ethics and a vision for improving our department. I don’t know Alcantara, but her cronies are running the halls. Sanders and Nieto were promoted two years ago, when the BSCC started the inspections. They failed. They have proven that they can’t do the job. Same for Bureau Chief Garcia. Get them out. We would be fired, suspended or demoted if we failed at our basic functions. Do the right thing, for god’s sake!

  • This myoptic view of the negativity within these facilities is the main reason why line staff are so burned out with practically zero morale. If any of these board members were to spend a couple of weeks working within these facilities their perspective would change. Many staff are being assaulted and abused by many treatment resistant youths who take advantage of the limited amount of tools staff possess to handle them. Most of the youth brag about their ability to place staff under investigation for abusing their rights. We may need reform within the facilities but employees also need to feel safe while trying to deal with this difficult job and they need advocates who have their best interest in mind. The majority of staff are doing their best to be compliant and also show empathy with those troubled youths. The very few that are not doing the right thing may require training or re-evaluation of their position.

  • A few years back the halls had Directors that had experience and leadership abilities to make the halls past BOC standards by being fair and holding employees accountable. The Unions complained about these Directors and Upper management moved them out. Then Upper management brought in their cronies and this is what you get. Many Upper Management all worked at HQ and have promoted each other. Now you have all the departments leaders without experience leading the department. The Department has some of its best players on the bench. It may be too late now as we are in the 4th quarter with little time to score.

  • Alcantara must be held accountable. We need real leadership over our Institutions. She is fearful of public speaking, discourteous to her managers, and unable to deliver when the lights shine brightest.

    Need I say more?

  • Scott Lopez…
    You really should report on these “kids” crime they committed in there communities due to there reform..

    This mentality of blaming and shaming kids is the problem. I am not defending the youth incarcerated however, speak to one of this kids and you be stun to ear the abuse, neglect, and trauma they have endured over the years. Leave it to the judge and the DA to decide their fate.
    Crime rates are high through out the US. due to economic conditions and lack of police presence.

    The Probation Department has the ability to rehabilitate these kids. They just need the support and proper guidance.

  • Talk about the hand tying the BSCC and BOC has done. Think about not being able to send a kid to his/her room when they physically bash in another kids head, throw the entire units food in the trash, spit on someone, punch a staff, urinate all over the hallway, etc. without writing a dissertation and be expected to continue to supervise the rest of the youth without interruption in programming. Give me a break. This system is set up for LA County to fail. It’s so much red tape it’s unreal. Soon to come is the taking away of OC spray that’s going to make for s pleasant and safe work environment for everyone. No tools to work with the toughest young adults and juveniles in the world. You can’t make this stuff up.

  • This is not brain surgery. Yes, the buildings have long needed to be remodeled. They are antiquated. But that’s cosmetic. There is no rehabilitation unless kids feel safe. They don’t feel safe and they are well aware that the staff have few tools that mean a thing to them. We could house them in a palace – but the strongest among them would still be running the show. The dept has long bought into the notion of not notifying the courts about youth misconduct via the filing of new charges, or a probation violation. The recommendation of additional time or the filing or a new case present sanctions that many (not all) kids do care about and wish to avoid. When staff had adequate tools to address misconduct, we didn’t have halls and camps that were war zones. We didn’t have so many kids hurt. We didn’t have so many staff out hurt. We didn’t have such god awful morale. We didn’t have so many staff accused of misconduct because they finally couldn’t deal anymore and cussed out a kid.

    I speak from many years of experience and I care about kids. I am begging the Board to get those running the halls from the very top down the hell out of the way and get some leaders in with some backbone that care about kids more than themselves. Without a balance between accountability and rehabilitation things will never change.

  • The Probation Dept. Should be very careful, there’s a million retired Probation Officers Tracking You! This Retired Deputy is one of few whose who have worked
    With the Only Probation Employee, Killed in the line of DUTY!! ✌

  • Investigate Alcantara and you will see where the problem is. How did “Roman” get promoted so fast? Isn’t she the one who had all the answers to the director exam? This department is dirty. Chief needs to do some house cleaning at the management level.

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