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State Opens Its First Detention Camp Exclusively for Girls

Times Staff Writer

Sixteen-year-old Renee’s cherubic face belies what has been a hellish life. Her arms, ravaged by the mesh of needle marks and a scar from a gunshot wound, tell the real story.

Renee, convicted of possession and sale of heroin, is one of about 80 teen-age girls at Camp Joe Scott in Saugus, the state’s first detention camp exclusively for girls. Today, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and other officials will dedicate the facility, which has been open two months.

“Without this place, I’d probably be dead now,” Renee said as she slouched on a worn sofa in the camp’s recreation room. “I dealt drugs because I was using a lot of drugs. I wasn’t eating. I was robbing people. A lot of people were after me.”

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Girls ranging from 13 to 18 years old--all capable of recounting stories of prostitution, burglary or drug use--populate the rustic Camp Scott.

Most of the girls were transferred from Camp Holton in San Fernando, previously a coeducational detention center.

Camp Scott, which had been a boys’ camp for 30 years, is a response to a soaring increase in the number of teen-age girls sentenced to detention centers since 1982, said Eugene DeSoto of the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

DeSoto said the increase was not precipitated by a jump in the number of serious crimes committed by girls, a figure that remained steady.

Rather, he said, the increase can be traced to the fact that judges now are sending girls to detention camps, while in the past they were sent either to foster homes or, if they were accused of serious crimes, to the California Youth Authority. The CYA is the juvenile equivalent of state prisons. The change came as a result of a 1982 court ruling saying that girls as well as boys should be sent to detention camps.

“More and more judges recognized a new sentencing option was available,” DeSoto said.

“We had an inequality in treatment. There was a wider range of choices where boys could be sent.”

What is most striking about Camp Scott is the facility’s relaxed atmosphere. The visitor is greeted in the main office by the incongruous odor of fresh popcorn. The camp’s director, Mary Dederick, doesn’t refrain from hugging the girls, some of whom she calls “honey.” Two of the most popular residents at Camp Scott are the pet dogs, Mikey and Missy.

“Not much like a jail, is it?” Dederick laughingly asks as she scoops up a handful of popcorn.

The center resembles a summer camp more than a detention camp. Most of the wood-paneled buildings are sheltered by thickets of elm trees. The camp has a gymnasium, a softball field and basketball courts. Inmates enjoy a variety of social activities, including a choir and monthly dances with boys from the neighboring Camp Scudder.

Tarika, 18, a high school graduate convicted of selling cocaine, calls Camp Scott a “pleasant punishment.”

That’s not to say that the camp’s daily regimen is not rigorous. The girls alternate days between attending school and eight-hour work periods. The U.S. Forestry Service employs several girls, at 50 cents a day, to weed the area outside the compound.

Dederick said the camp’s goal is not to punish but to foster an environment conducive to building self-esteem. Stays at Camp Scott average eight months, but before “graduating” the inmates must compile thousands of “points” they earn by performing well in class and working diligently.

“The point system gives the kids a sense of purpose,” Dederick said. “With it they achieve measures of success they didn’t have in their communities.”

DeSoto said, however, that about 40% of both the boys and girls in the detention program end up back in custody within two years of release. Only about 5% of the girls leave the camp with “changed attitudes and a new outlook,” said Denise, 16, who violated probation after being involved with drugs.

“A lot of people still have crime on their minds when they leave here,” Tarika said. “They think that’s all they can do.”

Even Renee, who said she would be dead without Camp Scott, doesn’t know whether she will remain straight after her release in seven weeks.

Both her parents are dead; her father was slain in a gang-related incident. For five years, she worked the streets of Los Angeles, feeding a heroin and cocaine habit that cost several hundred dollars a week.

“Mentally, I still want to get high. The feeling’s that strong,” she said. “I hope I can resist it. I just don’t know if I will, you know?”


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