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    The clock is running out on LA County’s juvenile halls. Can they be fixed in time?
    • October 8, 2023

    Less than two weeks remain before the state determines whether two additional Los Angeles County juvenile detention facilities will need to shut down over substandard conditions found by inspectors earlier this year.

    The county Probation Department has until Tuesday, Oct. 10, to submit an approved Corrective Action Plan detailing how it will bring the Barry J. Nidorf Secure Youth Treatment Facility in Sylmar up to the state’s minimum standards. By Oct. 18, an action plan is due for the much larger Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey.

    So far, county officials have submitted only a draft plan for the SYTF, a standalone unit that contains about 50 of the county’s most serious youth offenders.

    The Board of State and Community Corrections, the regulatory body overseeing California’s juvenile halls, received that draft on Sept. 27. The BSCC did not find it sufficient enough to accept outright and has provided feedback to the county, according to spokesperson Kally Sanders.

    “We anticipate revisions and a final version to be submitted prior to the Oct. 10 deadline for approval,” Sanders wrote in an email.

    No plan, draft or otherwise, has been received by the state for Los Padrinos, which houses more than 300 youth who are awaiting the conclusions of their court cases.

    The two county facilities largely failed in the same categories and, in some cases, for identical reasons, though there are five times more juveniles at Los Padrinos than at Barry J. Nidorf. Inspectors found 10 areas of noncompliance at the SYTF and 12 at Los Padrinos, the county’s last remaining juvenile hall.

    Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar closed in July, but the compound still houses the Secure Youth Treatment Facility for the county’s most serious youth offenders. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

    Deficiencies addressed

    The county’s draft plan for Barry J. Nidorf indicates the department will develop new training and policies to address the deficiencies. County officials said SYTF is now operating at “appropriate staffing numbers” and attached a spreadsheet showing the numbers for a 10-day period at the end of August as evidence.

    In July, inspectors found that staff members at the SYTF were “routinely held over with no notice to cover shifts and report they continue to be exhausted as a result.”

    “On paper, staffing schedules appear to be adequate, however, we observed lack of staffing and staff who appeared non-engaged with the youth,” an inspector wrote.

    In a statement, the Los Angeles County Deputy Probation Officers Union said staffing has “improved marginally” at Barry J. Nidorf and Los Padrinos in the past month.

    “This primarily is due to members stepping up and deploying to the Juvenile Halls from other sectors of Probation and to the Department’s push to hire and bring more staff online,” officials said in the statement. “While members continue to experience hold-overs, the current situation is slowly improving. In order for these efforts to result in ultimate success, we need to see tangible staffing increases as deployment alone will not solve the Department’s issues.”

    At a recent oversight commission meeting, county officials stated the Probation Department had failed in certain categories due only to missing paperwork. Searches, for example, were taking place, but not properly documented, according to Scott Sanders, the bureau chief for the SYTF.

    Critics dubious

    Juvenile justice reform advocates scoffed at the county’s draft and Sanders’ statement, saying it downplays the department’s failures and makes the same promises the county has already made and failed to keep in the past.

    “We’ve already seen the real-life consequences, but this Corrective Action Plan would make you think this is somebody who didn’t cross their t’s and dot their i’s, when really it is life or death,” said Aditi Sherikar, a senior policy associate for the Children’s Defense Fund California.

    In May, a young man at the SYTF died from a suspected drug overdose, and reportedly was not discovered until the following morning. Youth have reported having to urinate in receptacles in their rooms because there’s not enough staff to take them to the restroom at night.

    Sherikar said she hopes the BSCC will thoroughly consider Los Angeles County’s history before it makes a decision, as youth have experienced the troubling conditions for years despite L.A. County’s continuous promises to do better.

    How staffing will be addressed

    Though a Corrective Action Plan has not been formally submitted yet for Los Padrinos, an attachment provided to the BSCC — and recent comments by interim Probation Chief Guillermo Viera Rosa — outlined the county’s broader designs for the juvenile hall system.

    Chief among the fixes is a proposal to rapidly expand the Probation Department’s ranks by accelerating recruitment efforts and eliminating bureaucratic roadblocks that lengthen the amount of time before a new hire can appear for a shift.

    A proposed staffing plan provided to the BSCC indicates the county has hired 130 new employees as of this month and hopes to increase that total to 323 by March 2024 by beefing up its presence at job fairs and running more frequent academies.

    The department also will continue an unpopular policy requiring all 3,039 sworn peace officers, regardless of rank, to serve shifts in the juvenile halls at least once a month.

    State and county officials have blamed the staffing crisis, driven by an unusually high amount of call-outs and medical leaves, for the deficiencies cited by state inspectors, including the Probation Department’s struggles to get youth to school on time, provide adequate access to restrooms, and perform the appropriate amount of safety checks and room searches.

    More than 500 juvenile hall employees were out on leave in August.

    Sherikar said the county’s plan doesn’t appear to address the root causes behind employees not wanting to come to work. She disagreed that the department needs more employees; it needs those it already employs to show up, she said.

    The county has tried to offer financial incentives, such as bonuses, for employees willing to work in the juvenile halls.

    “I think they will just push out the problem and, a year from now, we’ll be in the same place with where the people hired this year, or hired early next year, will be the ones calling out,” she said. “What does it tell you about the conditions of these facilities that you can’t pay people enough to be there?”

    Other fixes promised

    To address lapses in safety checks, the county will implement an electronic system that will ping a “quality assurance” team five minutes before the checks are due and whenever a check is missed. The QA team will work with a newly formed compliance team to also monitor the frequency of room searches and staff adherence to the county’s policies on providing age-appropriate programming and recreation, according to the department.

    The BSCC’s inspectors previously found that staff was not properly trained in uses of force, including the deployment of pepper spray, which was supposed to be phased out but has since been brought back in response to a failed escape attempt in July.

    In response, 14 officers will go through a “train the trainers” program to allow them to teach the use of force policy to their peers, according to the department. Officials say having in-house trainers will cut back on the need for travel and allow quicker turnaround.

    Other changes will restructure Los Padrinos to more effectively utilize the department’s existing staff.

    Viera Rosa, at a recent probation oversight meeting, said he wants to segment Los Padrinos into multiple self-contained communities that would each house about 50 youth and have consistent supervisors and staff to make each “more manageable.”

    In the future, a visitor to Los Padrinos might be asked “which campus” they’re going to, he said.

    ‘We can’t fail at this’

    Viera Rosa said the progress at the juvenile halls has been challenged by violence and other safety risks. Los Padrinos’ population also recently increased faster than the county expected, jumping from 275 when the facility opened in July to more than 300 as of September.

    “I’m using all of probation’s resources in these facilities,” he said. “We understand that we can’t fail at this. Society has designated this as the place where these young people have to go and there isn’t an alternative in the short term for them.”

    County officials indicated at the commission meeting that Corrective Action Plans had been submitted for both facilities, though that later turned out to be inaccurate.

    “The goal is to give them sufficient time to provide us feedback, so we can make any modifications necessary,” Viera Rosa said at the time.

    The Probation Department declined to comment on the Corrective Action Plans, saying only that the final plans will be submitted by their due dates.

    Sean Garcia-Leys, a oversight commissioner and the executive director of the Peace and Justice Law Center, supports several of Viera Rosa’s ideas for Los Padrinos, but said he hasn’t seen tangible improvements during his visits to the facility over the past three months.

    “Everybody says that Chief Viera Rosa is the guy for building effective rehabilatory programs and making the system work, but he needs the raw materials to do that, and the first of those raw materials is staff, and he doesn’t have it,” Garcia-Leys said.

    While it could be true that progress is being made at Barry J. Nidorf, that is not the case at Los Padrinos, he said.

    “How it appears when you visit the facility is that things are not improving in nearly a substantial enough way,” he said.

    He worries the county might be cutting it too close to the Oct. 18 deadline if it intends to submit a plan that is unique to Los Padrinos.

    Its proposal for Barry J. Nidorf would be “wholly inadequate” to address the problems plaguing the larger juvenile hall, he said.

    If the plans aren’t accepted

    If the Corrective Action Plans for the SYTF and Los Padrinos are not approved, the facilities will automatically be declared “unsuitable,” a designation that would force the state to order each to shut down within two months unless the county can pass new inspections.

    That’s exactly what happened to L.A. County’s other juvenile halls earlier this year, and why Los Padrinos, originally closed in 2019, is open again. In May, the BSCC declared Central Juvenile Hall and Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall — minus the SYTF — “unsuitable” for many of the same reasons that the new facilities are in the state’s cross hairs now.

    This time, Los Angeles County won’t have a massive facility with the capacity to take on hundreds of youth, like Los Padrinos, to fall back on.

    Juvenile reform advocates say the county will need to seriously consider bold alternatives, such as decarceration, if the state orders it to shut down Los Padrinos, too.

    The county should work with the judiciary to ensure that youth — particularly those who are pre-adjudication — are sent to the juvenile halls and camps only when absolutely necessary and instead placed into community release programs whenever possible, they argued.

    “They are keeping young people who have not had their day in court yet under the custody of a department that cannot meet minimum standards and has not met them for years,” Sherikar said.

    Related links

    Bill would give LA County juvenile halls up to $1 billion in funding, if they aren’t shut down first
    Another LA County juvenile facility found deficient by state regulators
    Early troubles plague newly reopened Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall
    State clears Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall to accept 275 youth detainees from troubled facilities
    State orders LA County to close juvenile halls within 60 days



    ​ Orange County Register