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Amid conflicting reports, L.A. County board orders audit of probation agency

LA County supervisors order far-ranging audit of probation department, amid conflicting reports

Los Angeles County supervisors ordered a far-ranging audit of the county probation department Tuesday, amid debate over how much progress the department has made in improving conditions in its juvenile lockups.

A federal monitoring team recently ended its work, declaring the department had carried out required reforms in the juvenile camps. But another review by the county auditor-controller found that the department was not fulfilling all of the requirements of federal overseers.

The Justice Department began investigating conditions in the county’s 19 probation camps in 2006, after repeated reports of problems and abuse. Two years later, the county agreed to a settlement and series of reforms that included measures to prevent mistreatment of minors and misconduct by probation officers, as well as ensuring that camps were adequately staffed.

Earlier this spring, the federal monitoring team reported that the probation department had fully met the conditions of the settlement.

The county auditor-controller's office has been doing its own separate reviews periodically to make sure the department remains in compliance.

In a report released this month, the auditors found that the department had fallen out of compliance with several federal requirements, primarily having to do with training. Not all staff at the camps were getting required training on topics including suicide prevention and dealing with youth who have mental health issues or developmental disabilities, the auditors reported.

The audit also found that some camps didn’t properly handle rewards intended to manage youths’ behavior, including giving rewards that weren’t earned, which auditors wrote “diminishes the effectiveness of the behavior management program."

And they found that probation camp staff were not ensuring that youths participated in required substance abuse treatment programs and therapy for anger management and behavior issues.

"The way I read the report, it says there is unfinished business of some consequence," said county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who called for the new audit, along with Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich.

The probation department acknowledged that some of the training had not been completed, but disagreed with the majority of the audit findings. Chief Jerry Powers said his staff would be meeting with the auditors to discuss differences.

But the audits play a useful role, he said.

"I see it as further information the department gets, so we know where we need to improve," he said.

The new audit ordered by the supervisors Tuesday will examine recruitment, examination, hiring and promotional practices, vacancies and staffing ratios at the juvenile facilities, operating costs, the department’s administration of grant funds and contracting procedures.

The supervisors may separately take a more in-depth look at the experience of the young people incarcerated in the camps and outcomes after they leave the facilities.

Michelle Newell, senior policy associate with the Children's Defense Fund, an advocacy group that has pushed the county to move to a less-punitive model for juvenile justice, credited the probation department with making major strides in reducing the number of young people locked up. She also praised the department's plans to rebuild Camp Vernon Kilpatrick in Malibu to create a "small group" model that some experts believe can be more successful in rehabilitating young people.

But she said her group still has concerns about some of the practices in the camps, including the use of solitary confinement.

“We still think we need a complete transformative change to the way our camps operate fundamentally,” she said.

 

Follow Abby Sewell on Twitter at @sewella for more county news.

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