Earlier this week we learned that the LA County’s Juvenile Probation camps have finally reached “full compliance” with the 73 reforms demanded by the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice.
This is, of course, very good news. While LA County’s 9 camps currently in operation are not yet the model facilities we hope they will become, the improvements are many and notable, with a heartening list of additional reforms in the works, including the $48 million transformation of Camp David Kilpatrick scheduled to open in January 2017.
“It’s a great relief, for the department and for the county as well,” said Felicia Cotton, probation’s assistant chief in charge of juvenile facilities, when we talked about the feds signing off on conditions at the camps. “It marks our progress and certainly charts our next steps—where we need to go. We’ve been able to put some critical pieces in place. Now it’s time to start building on that foundation.”
In meeting the federal requirements, the county had done far more than simply checking boxes, Cotton said.
Yet at one time, she admitted, probation was mostly checking boxes when it came to trying to satisfy the DOJ monitors
“The approach was, ‘Let’s be perfect when DOJ comes,'” Cotton said. “But in order to make real progress, we needed to do more than just appeasing. We had to start saying ‘This is our system.’ We had to really take ownership and ask, ‘How can we make it better?’ And when we find something that is broken, we have to be able figure out how to fix it—and not wait for the DOJ.”
“These are our kids,” said Cotton. And we need to be part of the team that’s helping them.”
THE BAD OLD DAYS
Indeed, when probation first began this reform process, it did so only because the feds held a metaphorical gun to its head after the DOJ conducted a civil rights investigation in 2006, and found LA’s juvenile facilities rife with horror.
Probation officers were batting kids around, slamming them against walls, calling them names, and instigating fights (some of which were caught on video and wound up on YouTube). Staff also made kids stand or sit in body-stressing positions for long periods, kept them in solitary confinement for even longer periods as punishment, randomly denied them bathroom breaks, recreational time and/or medical treatment, failed to check on kids who were on suicide watch, pepper sprayed teenagers over trivialities, and took kids’ personal possessions “without adequate justification”—-among other transgressions and illegalities.
In order to dodge a nasty lawsuit from the feds, in 2008, the Board of Supervisors sign a Memorandum of Understanding obligating the county to substantial changes in 41 “areas of concern ” that included such issues as: “Threats and Intimidation,” “Uses of Force,” “Supervision of Youth at Risk of Self-Harm,” “Suicide Prevention”—and, astonishingly, “Consumption of Alcohol By Staff.”
When the county was slow to make corrections, the feds amended the MOU twice to make additional demands. Specifically, the amendments insisted that Los Angeles County do more than merely stop harming its juvenile charges, but actually to try to help them with rehabilitative and therapeutic practices that could aid kids in healing and in turning their lives around.
The feds also asked the county to institute programs that better allowed kids to succeed when they left the camps and went back home.
The fact that LA County has succeeded enough to cause the DOJ monitoring team to pack up and return home has yet to be made public officially. However probation chief Jerry Powers said as much in a February 13 confidential letter informing the LA County Board of Supervisors that federal supervision of the camps was finally and satisfactorily at an end.
NOTE: Although WLA has obtained the memo sent by Powers to the supes, it was first brought to our attention by KPCC’s Frank Stoltze, who reported on the matter here.
“While this is certainly an important milestone,” Powers wrote, “it does not signify an end to our efforts…In the very near future I will bring forward a proposal for an independent monitoring system that will allow us to continue to monitor our progress and improvements.”
CUSTODY & CONTROL
I asked Cotton (who came on board at juvenile probation in 2010) what had caused things to become so dysfunctional and so harmful to the kids in the county’s care, that the department of justice had to step in.
“We used to use a system of custody and control,” she said. “That’s what it was all about.” Cotton also pointed out that, at the time, there were 1500 to 2000 kids in the county’s camps on any given day, with another 1500 in the county’s juvenile halls.
“So you had staff who were mostly trying to control kids. And 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.
Yes, but some of the staff did more than simply try to control kids’ behavior. Some of the camp staff was abusive, and the MOU—along with some high profile lawsuits—made clear that a systemic culture existed in the camps that allowed the abuse to continue.
“I think the majority of our staff were good people who got caught up in custody and control,” said Cotton.
But some went further, she admitted. “We didn’t have training to combat that culture. We didn’t have a philosophical framework to combat it.”
Now the county does have a “best practices” framework, said Cotton, “which came about during the years of DOJ oversight, and it has allowed upper management to begin to weed out “those who don’t find working with kids an honorable profession.” The weeding has, in turn, made room for those who do really want to work with kids, said Cotton.
Probation is trying out a number of rehabilitation strategies for the young people in its care including
cognitive behavioral therapy, aggression replacement therapy (the system that Santa Clara’s James Ranch has used with success) and Adapted Dialectal Behavior therapy.
Cotton noted, however, that when the camps’ control methods of the past were traded for more therapeutic “evidence-based” methods, there was pushback from some of the staff, who were not in favor of the change.
Instituting rehabilitative programs for the kids in the camps called for the staff to be trained in new methods, said Cotton. “It called for buy in. It called for a change in culture.”
As a consequence, she said, there was push back. “There were those who didn’t believe in the evidence-based approach. And I know I have pockets of those people still.” But those staffers are in the minority according to Cotton.
“I think deep down inside most of the staff want to be given the skills and the resources to do a good job.”
ONWARD TO THE FUTURE
Alex Johnson, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund–California, praised probation’s progress in the camps that has triggered the federal sign off.
“However, LA County’s compliance with the federal memorandum of agreement is only a first step,” Johnson cautioned. “Systemic reform of the juvenile justice system will require a more comprehensive approach to protecting and healing our justice-involved youth. If we are truly vested in the rehabilitation of young people, we must eliminate punitive practices like solitary confinement, overhaul our countywide data collection systems, continue to increase educational opportunities for youth who are incarcerated, and invest in community based alternatives to incarceration and supportive reentry services…Efforts such as creating a new model at the former Camp Kilpatrick and CDF Freedom Schools are steps in the right direction, but true transformation in the movement to restore youth begins by ending the punitive incarceration model.”
Cotton essentially agreed. “This is by no means the end of what we intend to do,” she said. “It’s a starting place to reach for higher goals, and quality of treatment for our kids, as well as better training for our staff to get them the skills they need that the work that we’re going to be doing, going forward.”
Sounds good to us. And naturally we’ll be watching.
AND A QUICK ROUND UP OF OTHER NEWS…
AN LA MAN IS CHARGED AFTER 9-YEAR-OLD BOY TAKES GUN TO TARZANA SCHOOL
The AP has this story that is loaded with a host of troubling features.
AG ERIC HOLDER CONDEMNS IN HARSH TERMS THE SHOOTINGS OF OFFICERS IN FERGUSON
NRS’s Carrie Johnson has the story about what Holder and others have said to condemn on strongest terms the awful ambush shooting of two police officers in Ferguson.
AND MORE FERGUSON NEWS
Amy Davidson of the New Yorker in is Ferguson with more on the shooting and related issues