Troubled LA County juvenile hall emptied ahead of state inspection

The Los Angeles County Probation Department hastily evacuated all children housed in its central troubled juvenile ward over the weekend ahead of an inspection by state regulators, officials said.

In interviews with The Times, probation service workers described the transfer of about 140 children, some of whom had mental health issues and serious behavioral problems, as disorganized and dangerous.

Probation officials gave employees little to no warning of the move and did not have enough staff available to make the transfers safely, according to an email reviewed by The Times and two employees who spoke under on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Employees said some of the transferred youths lashed out upon arriving at Barry J. Nidorf Hall in Sylmar, throwing fire extinguishers and, in one case, throwing urine in a probation officer’s face. Parents were not notified of the move and many showed up at Central Juvenile Hall for scheduled visitations unaware that their children had been moved, according to employees and a statement from LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis.

The decision to close Central Juvenile Hall for 90 days was announced to department staff Friday in an email from Deputy Chief of Probation Karen Fletcher. In the email, a copy of which was reviewed by The Times, Fletcher cited the department’s inability to correct the venue’s problems that had been identified by state regulators as the reason for the closure.

In September, the California Board of State and Community Corrections, or BSCC, which oversees the county’s juvenile systems, determined that LA County wards were unsuitable for dealing with juveniles.

Last year’s inspection found that probation staff were not giving children proper health screenings when they were admitted to wards and were not properly documenting the rationale for placing some young people in segregation. It was the first time since the state board was established 10 years ago that it had found a county facility unfit to operate.

The probation service was ordered to fix the issues or move all children to county juvenile halls within 60 days. In November, state regulators determined that both facilities had resolved the issues, but a follow-up investigation last month at Central Juvenile Hall revealed new issues, according to a letter the state board sent to the probation department.

An investigator found that a youth had been held in solitary confinement at the facility for 11 days and “did not engage in exercise or recreation outside of their bedroom,” according to the letter. The BSCC determined that keeping a child confined in these conditions violated state regulations.

State inspectors were expected to return to county juvenile halls this week, said board spokeswoman Tracie Cone. But last week, county probation officials alerted the board that they would temporarily close Central Juvenile Hall to address issues inspectors had discovered.

Karla Tovar, spokeswoman for the probation department, did not provide answers to a list of detailed questions sent by a Times reporter on Monday afternoon.

The state board should reconsider whether LA County juvenile facilities should be allowed to operate on April 7, Cone said.

Although the inspection scheduled for this week had been “planned for some time,” Cone said, county probation staff members had less than a day to come up with a plan to move the children from Central Hall, reports Fletcher’s email to staff.

A probation official said the rush to close Central Juvenile Hall came after his staff began reviewing security camera footage at the facility ahead of the inspection. The review found that, among other shortcomings, security checks were not carried out when children were alone in their rooms, the official said.

“As they prepare for this inspection…they start watching the videos, and they realize, ‘We’re screwed,’” the official said.

Probation officials had hoped to transfer all the children on Saturday, but could not muster enough staff on such short notice, so they carried out the move over two days, the two probation service workers said.

Parents were not notified of the transfers and several showed up for scheduled visits, employees said. One of the employees expressed concern that the sudden and unexplained move to new surroundings was particularly difficult for the many children in the juvenile system struggling with mental illness.

“When they have serious mental health issues or self-harming behavior, that could have been a very dangerous situation,” the employee said. “What you do is you prepare the kids, you involve the mental health clinician, and you do it in increments.”

Solis, who co-wrote a motion asking the board to consider closing Central Juvenile Hall that was heard on Tuesday, criticized the probation service’s handling of the situation.

“The chaotic transfer of nearly 140 young people from Central Juvenile Hall to Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall is unacceptable. There was no advance notice to staff or to parents and families hoping to visit their children at Central,” she said in a statement. “I recognize that the BSCC told Probation that this transfer had to happen quickly, but the rushed schedule has only further traumatized these young people and their families who have already endured so much.”

Why Solis suggested the BSCC ordered the probation service to clear the juvenile hall was unclear. Cone, BSCC’s director of communications, said that was inaccurate.

Documents reviewed by The Times show that it was Chief Probation Officer Adolfo Gonzalez who initiated the discussion about closing Central Juvenile Hall.

The decision was the latest in a series of controversies regarding the county’s juvenile system.

The day before, two incidents described by employees as “riots” broke out at Central Juvenile Hall. In total, they said, about 40 children were involved in the brawls. In January, an unidentified person claiming to be a healthcare worker was able to bypass security at Nidorf Hall and remove the mouths of several children.

While Gonzalez said Tuesday that the probation department plans to reopen Central Juvenile Hall in less than three months, the LA County Board of Supervisors passed a motion to consider closing the facility permanently.

Citing repeated allegations of abuse and dilapidated living conditions at the ward — including a 2014 Los Angeles County grand jury report calling for its ‘tearing down’ — supervisors questioned whether it was worth trying to rehabilitate the establishment.

“Given the age of Central Juvenile Hall, this is a Sisyphean task – an ongoing and costly problem to maintain an aging and decrepit facility,” the motion reads. “In light of the endless issues with the adequacy of the facility, we have to ask ourselves if the facility can even be fully repaired. It’s time to weigh all the possibilities and consider whether it makes more sense – fiscally and morally – to close Central Juvenile Hall.

Los Angeles Times

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