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.)
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.
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?”
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.