COVID-19 & Justice Juvenile Justice: Healing Not Punishment

Now That A Staff Member Has COVID-19, Why Isn’t LA County Releasing More Kids From Its Youth Lockups

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

On Wednesday, April 1, the news broke that a detention services officer who worked at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall had tested positive for the coronavirus. **

In addition, 21 kids who had potentially been exposed to the initial officer have been quarantined.

The agency has thoroughly sanitized the unit that was most affected, Interim Probation Chief Ray Leyva said, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Barry J., as it is called colloquially, is one of two Los Angeles County juvenile halls that are still in operation. Between the two facilities, approximately 400 youth are in residence.

When we asked a probation source how the rest of the Barry J. staff were doing with the news that the virus was confirmed to have entered one juvenile hall, he said they were freaked out.

Very freaked out.”

So are many of the staff and kids who are presently working or living in the rest of the county’s youth lock-ups.

“My son already tends toward anxiety and depression,” said one mother of a 16-year-old boy who is at Central Juvenile Hall, located northeast of downtown Los Angeles. “It’s really hard for him since they cut off all the family visits,” she said of the teenager who is waiting for his case to be settled, a process that has ground to a halt due to the virus and the various legal delays it has necessitated.

At Central juvenile hall, any classroom time has been shut down because of the virus, said the mother.  “All they get are these paper handouts, which are really worthless,” she said. “That means he’s falling farther behind in school.

“I don’t see why he can’t be at home while he waits to go back to court.”

Her question is a common one that is being asked by a lot of parents, and also a surprising number of staff members. Meanwhile, youth advocates are pushing hard for as many kids as is possible to be sent home, rather than leave so many young people in facilities that — like LA County’s jails, and the state’s 35 prisons — don’t allow for the practice of social distancing and other precautions that help to keep the virus from being transferred.

Rising staff fears

In Central Juvenile Hall, fears have been compounded, said several staff members we spoke to, because they still don’t have enough masks, and there is no hand sanitizer, which makes both youth and staff feel unprotected.

Late last week, probation spokesperson, Adam Wolfson, said the shortage of masks, which was vexing management, had been addressed.

“There are enough masks for all staff,” which were distributed last weekend, he said in an emailed statement.

But there are shortages of other items, “such as hand sanitizers,” said Wolfson, adding that probation was “able to procure and distribute individual small bottles to the facilities pending the receipt of the back-ordered shipment.”

In other words, LA County Probation — along with hospitals, first responders, and others who have jobs that do not allow them to stay home — is scrambling to get the items it needs to safeguard both staff members and the kids they are caring for.

Given the shortages, getting the proper equipment, even for the nation’s largest probation agency, can be challenging.

As of Thursday night, April 2, WitnessLA was still hearing from employees who said that while boxes of masks are being handed out at the beginning of each shift at Central Juvenile Hall, there still aren’t enough total masks in the boxes distributed to cover everybody in that shift, a situation that continues to raise staff anxiety, as they care for increasingly worried kids.

“A lot of the kids here just want to go home,”  said a staff member at Central. They’re scared of the virus, “and they want to be with their families,”

A big percentage of those kids could safely go home, according to the staffer, “because they’re here on something minor.”

(Note: All staff members we quote here are unnamed, and their positions are described generically, due to their request for anonymity.)

Scared kids

At Challenger Memorial Youth Center, located in Lancaster, staff members report that the approximately 50 boys in residence are also fearful, even though the staff members are working hard to keep themselves and the teenagers in their charge safe.

(Camp Challenger is where the young people from probation’s well-known model camp, Campus Kilpatrick, have been staying since November 2018 when the deadly Woolsey Fire rampaged through the canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains where Kilpatrick is located.)

“We show the youth how to wash their hands properly and other precautions like that, and they’re pretty good about it,” one Deputy Probation Officer (DPO) told us.

“People assume the kids aren’t paying attention to what’s going on, but they are.”

A week before,” the DPO said, a new boy came into one of the dorms.

“All the kids were upset. They didn’t want him there.”

The boys’ upset had nothing to do with the new kid, per se. Nor was it a gang issue, according to the staff member. It was simply the fact that the new guy had come from outside the camp, presumably from one of the two juvenile halls. Therefore, he was viewed as a danger.

“He could bring us the coronavirus,” the boys reportedly said to staff members.

The boys at the camp had all been together at the camp for a while, thus they reasoned they weren’t going to give the virus to each other.

“But with the new kid, they wanted him to go to the nurse and be quarantined.”

Fears grew worse the following morning, after the boy coughed all night.

Now the Challenger boys were really undone.

“We tried to explain that he has asthma. That’s all the cough is. His sinuses are acting up.” said the DPO, hoping that this explanation would turn out to be right.

Still over-detaining?

According to probation’s Wolfson, the department is working with the courts and other “legal partners” on methods to safely reduce the youth population housed at probation’s facilities.

For instance, he wrote, they will only detain kids who have committed more serious probation violations, such a “when a youth cuts their ankle bracelet, is missing for more than 12 hours, or commits a new crime.”

In terms of the kids in the camps, like Challenger/Kilpatrick, the department is continuously screening for kids who can be released early from the youth camps “due to youths meeting their treatment goals,” said Wolfson. But in the end, he wrote, “only the court can authorize a release.”

This week, as Interim Probation Chief Leyva, members of the LA County Board of Supervisors, along with a large number of justice advocates are trying to figure out how to send more kids back home to their families, WitnessLA learned that various members of the district attorney’s office are still filing on youth with perplexing harshness, and then pushing for kids be sent to juvenile hall while their cases make their way through the legal system. This often reportedly includes cases for which LA County Probation has recommended release, or at the most, house arrest.

One of the most recent cases reportedly pertained to a young teenager with no previous record, a kid whose lawyer figured would be sent home, especially given the recent virus-related cite-and-release mandate that the LA County Sheriff’s Department and the LAPD were using as long as the person being cited didn’t represent a threat to public safety.

“So why,” texted one of the public defenders who’d learned of the case, “are we arresting this child and filing a detained petition?”

Why indeed.

More as we know it.

** UPDATED: Sunday, April 5, 2020

We have been told that some other staff members working elsewhere in the agency may have tested positive for COVID-19.  But we have not, as yet, been able to confirm how many and where they were working.

WitnessLA will continue to keep you up to date on anything relating to the coronavirus inside LA County Probation’s juvenile facilities.



  • It is interesting how the media and others are using this COVID-19, as an excuse to release, juveniles and inmates because they are scared of contracting the virus.

    Ironically, were these scared juveniles and inmates scared when they were perpetrating their selfish acts upon unsuspecting, law abiding citizens (with the exception of gang members)? Further, were these “scared” individuals gravely concerned when they were assaulting and robbing other juveniles or inmates which were introduced into the jail / juvenile system?

    Here is a section from the aforementioned article, “various members of the district attorney’s office are still filing on youth with perplexing harshness, and pushing for kids be sent to juvenile hall while their cases make their way through the system.” Perplexing harshness? Are you f**king kidding me?! So am I to interpret that due to the COVID-19, all law enforcement related activities, coupled with the court system should be abandoned and disregarded?

    This is not the first or last pandemic we have encountered. Albeit, this particular virus is more noteworthy because the MSM, is blowing this totally out of proportion. If you do not believe me, take a look at how the last pandemic was handled during the previous POTUS administration.

    Nonetheless, if some of these so called “scared” juveniles are released to their families (which in my opinion is BS), what do you think they will resort to? Do you honestly believe that these fine, educated, with basic fundamental societal values, will remain in their homes and practice social distancing, while adhering to the rule of law?

    Bottom line Celeste, as a functioning, civil society, we must ALL still respect the rule of law and adhere to these laws and the consequences that are attached to these laws. This is how our country was founded. We should not deviate from holding people accountable for their transgressions because the cry of the criminals and their supporters, is being amplified by a group of unethical, mamby, pamby SJW’s.

  • Maybe the parents (noted no men- fathers were quoted) could be asked how they could now ensure their “kids” won’t be reoffending? Or, is this experience now going to make the young criminals understand that if you victimize other people you may end up someplace (jail/prison) where you cannot make independent decisions on where you go or who you live with. Poor babies!!!

  • Maybe the left’s precious little “justice involved” juveniles would be so kind as to stop assaulting, robbing, raping, murdering, and slinging dope during this national time of tragedy.

    Ha! That’ll be the day. No, we don’t just let the little criminals conduct their street crime program with impunity. If they were like normal people who step up and help society in times of need that would be one thing, but they aren’t those people, and they continue to victimize and need to be held accountable.

  • These minors are not lil Angels, they’ve committed crimes and they’re going through the Justice system. They’re not in Juvenile Hall for Day Care Camp or reward for being fine citizens. Majority will be career Criminals

  • Wow… maybe the focus of this article should have been how the deputies who are assigned to work in the halls and camps do NOT have appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). And, if the staff don’t have PPE or hand sanitizer, I’m pretty sure there aren’t any masks or hand sanitizer for the kids.

    All staff should be provided with a new mask and a new pair of gloves when they report to duty each shift. Without proper PPE, what are these deputies bring home to their families?

  • I pray that my first line brothers and sisters working the front lines protecting our health and well-being are being respected as true hero’s and not forgotten. The DSO’s and GSN’s who serve on the front lines of our juvenile halls also face risk of this pandemic. But, they aren’t mentioned in any news reports of their bravery like our doctors and nurses, when coming in contact with a newly arrested minor from the streets for rape, murder, assault with a deadly weapon, robbery, arson, female trafficking, drug dealing, car jacking, etc.

    Do you honestly believe that a minor given a Get Out of Jail Free card to go home will stay at home during our stay at home order. Give the staff the appropriate gear to wear during this pandemic so they can do their jobs. The talk on the streets is that California is soft on crime with a soccer mom mentality. Criminals will begin to receive citations to appear in court as opposed to going to jail for their crimes. Oh, wait. The courts are closed right now.

    Enough of California’s atheist reform approach. It’s time to go back to God fearing boot camp.

    We have all been ordered to stay in and not go out! Wear a mask, wash your hands don’t be a jerk while your out. Just yesterday Dr. Birx said don’t even go to the grocery store. People with the virus are self quarantined or hospitalized. Do we get IT? yes we do.

  • The story ends with the usual jab at the D.A. It’s good to see the progressives sliding back into their politics as usual mode. A little return to normality , the COVID thing is bad, but not so bad they can’t keep posting the usual nonsense. Kind of reassuring.

  • Hahaha the fact they want these kifd released ud a joke. I guess she doesn’t know about the kid who went to court and begged the judge to let him stay in camp due to knowing all his enemies would be gunning for him cause they don’t follow laws. Also, he said his home life isnt the best and he was scared to ve released to his home cause his mom has lots of foot traffic at home… No mention of that!

  • Celeste Freeman, you are a fraud and you are slandering the probation department for your own personal agenda. Stop making false statements about a department you know nothing about. You are one of the many reasons people are panicking. You need to be shut down. I’m a public defender and I would never put my integrity on the line for such propaganda.

  • Sounds like Celeste and Taylor would agree to take in some of these poor kids.
    When can they move in?
    Or is it only ok when they get dumped into someone else’s neighborhood?

  • Hi Pat,

    I work inside and have for the past decade. My job is to not judge these kids because that’s what the court does and we should respect the rule of law. But the fact remains that a significant number of these kids can go home since they are not a threat to public safety. Many of the kids in the juvenile halls are there because they missed a phone call with their probation officer or because they didn’t make it to court on time, resulting in probation violations and bench warrants.

    We all have an opportunity to step up right now — for the staff and kids. We are getting kids that don’t need to be here; thus putting the staff’s lives in danger. Remember the Probation department is on the receiving end. It is up to law enforcement and the DA’s office to step up right now. Stop arresting kids for status offenses like breaking curfew or silly things like having an open container. I’d also stop arresting and booking kids for misdemeanors when there’s no victim or threat to public safety.

    All this to say, it is easy to demonize these kids for their actions. But i have to admit that moral approaches do not help us to understand the causes and reasons why these kids are in our facilities to begin with. And what is worse, some of the moral assumptions actually inhibit us in our attempts to learn about its causes and prevention.

    The most popular moral ways of thinking about those kids in juvenile halls and probation camps lead to the mistaken conclusion that to understand why they were arrested and incarcerated is to excuse them. This way of thinking might be called the bogeyman of every effort to understand these kids; it hovers in the wings, ready to be brought out whenever an attempt is made to learn what causes kids to wind up in the system so that we can prevent it, rather than being limited to punishing it.

    Punishing requires much less effort. It is easier and less threatening to condemn these kids (morally and legally) so that we can punish them. We are learning quite a bit about the justice system during the coronavirus. We lock up way too many kids because they were born in the wrong zip code.

  • If they only knew how they are sending in hundreds of field staff to “assist” the facilities. However, the facilities are adequately staffed. By sending in hundreds of field officers when they are NOT needed is only exposing the minors to many more people who could potentially have the virus. Once again the Dept is not thinking proactively but will once again be reactive once something happens. They are endangering the health of minors and staff by sending in field staff.

  • Jacob you obviously don’t know anything about criminals , I’m all for releasing everyone ……..onto your street……. have fun oh and don’t call the evil dumb police when they break into your car or paint on your walls …….enjoy say hello to little sniper for me

  • Absolutely agree whole heartedly I also work in the system & I am witness to this daily.

  • With all due respect, society from the beginning of time has punished people for violating it’s norms. I’m not suggesting that society disregard the causes of crime but imho a balanced approach that combines accountability and rehab for kids is important. You are doing them NO favor to send a message that misconduct doesn’t bring sanctions – sure doesn’t work that way with your boss, does it? That’s just not real life. The Probation Dept has cut way way back on the number of kids detained as compared to years ago and has closed several camps. I understand that for police, it practically takes an act of Congress to detain a kid in the halls now. While there may be some that should not be there, it’s hard to believe that’s a huge number.

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