Juvenile Justice: Healing Not Punishment

Religious Services For Kids Canceled For 5 Weeks Straight At LA County’s Most Troubled & Understaffed Juvenile Hall

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

All of LA County Probation’s three juvenile halls have religious services every Sunday morning, which are supposed to be available for any of the kids in residence who want them. Both Catholic and Protestant services are offered. But a youth may request someone different if he or she subscribes to another religion.

No youth is pushed to show up.  Attendance is discretionary. Yet, while the weekly services are optional for the youth, it is mandatory under state law for the various facilities to provide them.

To be specific, in the State of California’s Code of Regulations, there is a section known as Title 15, which, among other things, lays out the “Minimum Standards for Juvenile Facilities.”

A section in Title 15’s listing of minimum standards is devoted to a description of religious requirements. And at the top of that list is the requirement that each facility must “provide access to religious services and/or religious counseling at least once each week.”

The availability of the weekly Sunday church services is also spelled out in the LA County Probation handbook available online for the parents of kids who have been placed in any of the county’s juvenile detention facilities.

In the past year, however, as staff shortages and incidents of violence in the juvenile halls have risen, there have been repeated reports that only small numbers of the kids at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall located in Sylmar, California, have been allowed to attend services, meaning the majority of the youth are left out.

In 2019, things reportedly got worse. On some Sundays services began to be canceled altogether at Barry J., as the Sylmar facility is commonly called.  As time went on, the cancelations increased.

In February 2019, for example, one out of the four religious services were canceled that month.  Then in March, services were canceled on two Sundays out of the four. In April 2019, things seemed better when only one service was canceled.

Yet, on the two Sundays that to some youth would be the most significant that month—namely Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday—the services occurred but with startlingly few kids.  Often as few as five or six youth were reportedly allowed to attend any given service.

Finally, in May of this year, matters took a drastic downturn, and services were canceled on the Sundays of May 5, 12, 19, and 26.

In other words, there were no religious services in the month of May at all.

Services were again canceled this past Sunday, June 2, at Barry J, with word that next Sunday will likely be canceled too.

“That’s unheard of,” said a probation supervisor who works at another facility.  “Sometimes they’d cancel a service if there was a gang fight or something,” he said.  But five weeks in a row…?”

When the services are canceled, clergy or lay volunteers are usually allowed to go around to the various units in the juvenile halls, in order to visit with the boys and the girls personally.

“But there’s no way there are enough volunteers to get to all the youth who ask for a visit,” said a source familiar with the process. And those short conversations, while better than nothing, are just that, short conversations, the source said.

They don’t take the place of a church service or mass.

Chaos and short staffing

On Tuesday of last week, distress about the no church issue ramped up to the point that the head of the Office of Restorative Justice of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles sent a letter to LA County Probation Chief Terri McDonald and Chief Deputy Probation Officer, Sheila Mitchell (who oversees the juvenile side of the department), asking for a meeting to discuss their concerns about these repeated cancellations.

When we talked to staff members at Barry J and elsewhere, they attributed the cancelation of the church services to conditions in the hall that they say have become increasingly unsafe, both for youth and for staff, causing angry and fearful officers to repeatedly “call out” sick in problematic numbers, meaning that other detention officers must work double shifts, and still the facility has become chronically short staffed.  The short staffing has resulted, domino-like, in the cancelation of various programs for the facilities’ kids, church services among them.

Reports of short staffing and violence at the county’s juvenile halls have been increasing for more than a year.  Yet in late April they seemed to hit critical mass at Barry J.

That was when an experienced detention service officer working at Sylmar called Probation Chief McDonald early in the morning and, not reaching her, left an emotional message demanding that members of the county’s probation commission come to Sylmar “to see the chaos that is going on at the hall,” or there would likely be a staff walkout.

Probation Commission president, Joe Gardner did make a visit a few days after the call came in, and his subsequent report described an out of control and drastically understaffed situation at the hall.

According to officers presently working in the facility, things have not improved—hence the string of cancellations of church services. “We just don’t have the staff to bring the kids over to the chapel,” one officer told WitnessLA. “It’s not safe.”

Jim Schoengarth, president of SEIU Local 721, which represents the supervising officers working at probation, expressed surprise at the number of cancellations.

“Now that we’re aware, we will begin to monitor, and we believe that this is just a result of the continued problems facing our officers and the juveniles in our current conditions,” Schoengarth said.

“We want to make sure the youth don’t lose this opportunity completely.”

When we contacted probation higher-ups about the reports of canceled church services, the department sent a statement through probation spokesperson, Kerri Webb.

“The Department is looking into the allegations,” the statement said, ” and we are working with Office of Restorative Justice and the Archdiocese to ensure that the religious and spiritual needs of our youth are being met.”

More than just a service

Those familiar with church services at the juvenile halls, explain that their importance goes well beyond religion, or meeting the state law.

Most of the pastors, priests, and others who preside over or help with the church services are experienced at going into the county’s juvenile halls and camps, and generally good at relating to the kids who show up. Over time, they get to know individual kids and are often viewed as temporary parents, aunts or uncles, encouraging the youth to believe in the best in themselves.

This is especially true when Father Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, is scheduled to lead a Sunday service at any of the juvenile halls. He inevitably has crowds of kids who want to see him and attend the mass where he will officiate.  Boyle is an unusually gifted speaker, the author of two best-selling books, and in high demand all over the nation and, arguably, the world.

“So it’s a big deal when he comes,” said a probation source.

Also, in the course of the service and after, Boyle lets kids know about the programs Homeboy offers, such as job training, counseling, tattoo removal, and a variety of other free wraparound services to facilitate healing and growth for youth like those at the halls.

At the end of the mass, he hands out cards to anyone who wants them, spending time connecting to as many individual kids as time will allow, encouraging them to come and see him when they get out, effectively throwing out a series of emotional ropes to youth who often will take advantage of that outreach of hope when they are struggling later.

Yet, on April 31, the most recent time that Fr. Greg was to officiate at Barry J, instead of a room packed with kids as it has been in years past, a grand total of five boys and zero girls were reportedly allowed to attend the mass.

“So, all those kids who were not allowed to come,” a source told us, “lost much more than just the service.”

The photo at the top is courtesy of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative and was taken at Barry J Nidorf Juvenile Hall several years ago when more kids were reportedly allowed to attend church services. In this photo, Father Mike Kennedy was presiding.


  • Thanks a lot for bringing this issue to light. I am one of the Catholic volunteers at the Sylmar facility and I know, first hand, how incredibly unfortunate and sad that the kids have been unreasonably denied the opportunity to worship and pray for the last several Sundays. To be clear, the cancellations are due to staff shortage, as you’ve reported, and not due to the children’s behavior. Indeed, many of them feel dejected when they’re not allowed to attend Mass. Many of them find consolation when they go to Mass and one can visibly notice a change in their countenance and affect. Then, after Mass, we would go visit with them for mentoring and Bible study. This phase of our work are oftentimes frustrated because the staff – perhaps due to inadequate staffing – would rather allow the children watch television or play cards rather than visit with the volunteers who take time off from their families each Sunday to be at the facility. We’re hopeful this issue will be resolved sooner rather than later. Again, thanks for a well researched and written expose.

    • I’m a DSO at LPJH. The services do help A lot of our minors. In many instances church service has become a meeting place for our young minors To receive the gospel. It’s also a place where gangs members call out each other, create gang tension, fight, pass contraband, crime partners try to communicate and staff, visiting parents, and church volunteers are all placed in potential war zones because of short staffing and gang tension. I’ve personally noticed that most of the catholic volunteers prefer to put their religious services ahead of safety and security even if their is clear gang tension. Perhaps one minor finally gets an opportunity to attack another minor because they are normally separated in different housing units. The same is true for our Protestant volunteers. But, it seems our Protestant volunteers are more aware of the gang culture and are more likely to heed the warning signs of trouble. Note: our Protestant church volunteers serve a large part of African Americans where as our catholic volunteers service mostly Hispanics. Hey, but all are welcome. Right. Our catholic volunteers seem more untitled, some are even issued secured keys to go in and out of a building. That alone should be a security risk. So, due to safety and security of all, sometimes church service must be cancelled. However, religious services and bible study is still conducted in each individual unit so their religious services is being met. However, you are dead wrong to say that staff would rather have their minors watch TV. It’s the kids who decide if they want to talk to the volunteers when they visit the units for religious counseling or bible studies. The volunteers get angry when they have no minors to speak with. Most minors I know want to speak to either a catholic or Protestant volunteer in the unit. But, because of peer pressure from other minors in the unit and a sense of showing weakness some minors will decline and some minors will see the opportunity to speak with the religious volunteers. Many DSO staff recognize the signs of troubled youth and refer them to mental health professionals for further counseling. We as staff try to talk to those minors one on one to let them know its ok and tell them That’s what the religious volunteers are here for. We even praise the volunteers who come and share their experiences and lend their expertise in rebuilding young lives. But don’t you dare sit here and write about staff canceling church services without getting full knowledge of “Why” it was cancelled. I’d rather be safe and secure than possibly responsible for a kid getting beat up during church service all while his invited guest; a parent is present. Staff in the halls are well versed on title 15. If the halls are short staff then some things will get cancelled, theirs always a good reason due to the safety and security of the minors, staff and invited guest present. Again, WitnessLA looking good in the face of social media without getting full details of a story.

  • If the “kids” are anything like their somewhat older counterparts in the jails, they virtually always have ulterior motives for attending religious services. They include gang meetings, moving drugs between housing locations, moving “kites” (handwritten notes detailing drug drop locations, orders to assault other inmates, etc.), and just generally getting out of their housing to break to monotony. Pray and worship? Yeah, not so much.

    The more realistic clergy members confide to deputies that in any group of inmates, they hope to reach one of them. They acknowledge that even that goal is nearly unattainable.

    Please don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s downright hard to get kids incarcerated these days. These junior criminals are the worst of the worst. Maybe when they were still on the streets they kept the sabbath holy and went to church. If you’re inclined to believe tripe like that, I think you’re reading the right blog.

  • HORRIBLE! No religious services?! Before you know it, they’ll take away other life essentials like combs and, dare I say it….television.

    They SHOULD be praying in their cells anyway. Here’s what Jesus had to say about praying public:

    Matthew 6:5 – And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites [are]: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

    Matthew 6:6 – But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

    Matthew 6:7 – But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen [do]: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.

  • Let’s get a bit of perspective here. The real damage to church services was done once it was decided to honor Title 15 by allowing dayroom activities (movies, games, etc.) in the units for minors not wanting to attend services. The numbers at Barry J. tailed off badly after that, and never recovered. Give most of the children a choice between the recreation and church and it’s no choice at all. “Dose” hit the nail on the head concerning the behavior of those who do attend. Fighting and gang assaults, once unheard of, became a norm for both Protestant and Catholic services. One thing the hand-wringing do-gooders will never understand is that the culture they are forging in the halls is one of zero consequences, which translates to unfettered violence and terror. Good luck restoring order.

  • They need to staff this place properly. This has been going on too long and everyone knows we need more staff. Don’t understand why they aren’t sending more staff. The shortage of staff is the key to all this other problems.

  • When will you bleeding heart liberals wake up and see that your political Kool-Aid and ideologies is destroying youth incarceration in California?
    Everything you advocates and re-entry program organizations push for is either for the big money or to push your leftist agendas or deologies. If you really care about the juveniles and rehablitation, you would keep your political views out of policy making and court sentencing.
    You need to get rid of the top two people you brought in – Shelia and Terri. Make believe smoking mirror advocates – also in it for the 6 digit paycheck payout and the nice retirement medical benefits.
    These two have been proven a complete and total failure – they are running this department into unrepairable chaos.
    It hurts us all to hear that they are not attending church, all staff – peace officer or not in any type of detention facility will tell you that it’s a great benefit for a juvenile to hear the word of GOD! To hear the words of FAITH -LOVE – TO BE KIND – FORGIVE and all that good stuff. What a disgrace.

  • LASD Apostle, if only you could stop quoting Christ and start acting more like him. I love these christian high holy rollers that claim to believe in Christ but want to give everyone the death penalty, want to kick out all of the immigrants, and claim life begins at conceptions but don’t care if the kids eat after they are born. What hypocrisy.

    Retired, you say liberals are “destroying youth incarceration in California.” I think that is the goal. Big money? I thought that was the prison complex with their correction officers’ union. That’s big money. Or, law enforcement with a union that anyone in the private sector envies with those cushy salaries and generous retirement benefits. Where can one retire at 55 or after 25 years. And then you can work that overtime. Stop whining and count your blessings.

    • Cf – it’s very clear your uneducated and misinformed – Probation Officers are not provided the luxury of safety retirement. They all have to work passed 58 years of age to see any monetary return from their county (service) retirement plan. The county is in a winning situation – officers only average about 5-7 years before being buried by their love ones. Out of about 20 of my closest peers, only three of us are left. Inform yourself before you start comparing apples to oranges.

    • @cf -“Or, law enforcement with a union that anyone in the private sector envies with those cushy salaries and generous retirement benefits. Where can one retire at 55 or after 25 years. ”

      Guess what, sometimes people working in the criminal justice system envy those in the private sector that are not instantly disliked for a title or a uniform they wear – as opposed to actual words or actions. You know… that same type of ignorant prejudice that you expound on as directed at people for nothing more than the color of their skin?

      I know your typical reply is “that’s what you’re paid for” but in fact, that’s not accurate. Does some of that go with the territory? Of course. But thanks to the acknowledged misconduct of a minority of individuals, people with an ax to grind work hard to create a them against us attitude out on the streets toward people working in the system that does nothing but create further animosity. Sounds to me like the same stereotypes that you protest here. It isn’t appropriate in either direction.

      As for retirement, as physically and emotionally draining as law enforcement is, it is with good reason that people can retire starting at 25 years. You try working all night and sitting in court all day and see what it does to you after a few years.

      You are bright and I frankly agree with some of your comments but your continued harping about salary and union representation reflects your lack of big picture understanding and very little knowledge about the history of unions and working people in this country. As an aside, Probation does not have safety retirement. And just for the record, when I worked in the private sector years ago, I had far better union representation than I do now.

      In the end most of us started working in the system because we wanted to help people and make communities safer. Is the justice system in need of some reforms? Yes. Have there been some hiring mistakes on all agencies along the way? You bet – just like there are anyplace else. Go on a few ride-a-longs and expand your horizons

  • Closing Los Padrinos ..hmmm?? Well just like Prop 47 and other jail reform measures sent a clear message regarding what crimes were deemed worthy enforcement, so shall this having the same chilling effect. By reducing capacity and creating more red tape at the juvenille halls, it will lead to fewer detentions and less chance these kids will ever be on anyone’s radar when it comes to their accessibility to public services…….flawed they may presumably be.

    Its easy to forget, that law enforcement, “the new age whipping boy, root of all of societies evils” in some folks opinion, is typically the first public agency at risks kids typically interact with or are called when problems arise.

  • Sad how people who have never worked inside the walls of juvenile hall or camps have the luxury of criticizing the way things are done in these facilities. The have no clue what happens inside the units or dorms. They go by what they are told by the minors. These be are easily manipulated by these kids who are masters in the art of manipulation. The ignorance of these people is outrages.

  • Minor’s counsel’s are starting to repeatedly complain about BJ happening’s and Judges are requesting Probation provide answer’s/reports as to the lack of regular school and religious service attendance at that facility!
    I understand the problems at Barry and the need for a change of your CDC/LASD flunkee, that is a “DOLT” in charge of your dept. Folks please hang in there, your job is tougher now, but you can do it and continue to be professional.

  • I been with the Lasd for just under 25years. When I was new I worked in the juvenile module at Crdf . They were the juvies cprobation could not handle, the so called worst of the worst. I think maybe we should take over your dep or send in new graduates from the academy or off the streeters to staff these halls or provide back up.

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