Handled With Care : Unique Lockup Gives Teens Heavy Therapy


The nine boy-criminals gathered as they do every weekday inside the tall brick walls that separate their world from the aging homes in the western part of this largely industrial city.

One had killed a relative. Another had fired a gun into a crowd, grazing a teen-age girl. One boy was in for molesting a child, while another was doing time for attempted sexual assault. Assault and battery, possession of firearms, auto theft and burglary filled the rap sheets of the rest.

The oldest in the group would be released from the lockup Monday. Jailed for assault and battery, the 18-year-old wanted to share his fears with the others.

Share his fears? A year ago, on the outside, the teen-ager would have preferred to pummel their faces with his fists. He was a tough white kid running with a black gang in the San Fernando Valley.


“I can’t be like I was out there,” he said quietly. “They’re going to think I’m going to keep doing the same things.”

Similar encounters were taking place in the other nine dormitories at the Dorothy Kirby Center, a unique lockup for boys and girls that is run by the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

The Kirby Center is different from the county’s other juvenile lockups and from any other juvenile jail in the state, according to Kirby Director Herb Zipperstein, because it mixes incarceration with an especially heavy dose of psychological therapy.

The approach has resulted in a relatively low recidivism rate for Kirby graduates, according to a state survey. The lockup apparently enjoys a good reputation with the area’s Juvenile Court judges and probation officers, who keep it filled to capacity. One Superior Court judge said: “I wish we had a lot more of it. It’s the best we have.”


The Kirby Center, named for a former director, was founded in 1961 to serve delinquent and emotionally disturbed girls. It began accepting boys in 1976.

Inside the 13 1/2-foot-high walls, Kirby Center resembles a high school with manicured lawns and shrubs. Ten dormitories surround a collection of classrooms. There are grass fields, basketball and volleyball courts and a pool.

The dormitories, which house 10 youths each, have central sitting areas with bookcases. Each ward has a small, private bedroom. That contrasts with the county detention camps, where as many as 150 sleep in a one-room dormitory. There are 60 boys and 40 girls at Kirby.

But the staff is perhaps the biggest difference. A probation officer with a master’s degree in social work is assigned to each dormitory to run the daily sessions of group therapy. There also are counseling sessions with families.

Psychologists meet regularly with the social workers to tailor their therapy programs.

The Kirby Center accepts only teen-agers with emotional problems who are 13 to 18 years old. Some have been diagnosed as having mood disorders such as depression, and they take medication. The center does not accept juveniles with severe mental illnesses.

The average stay at Kirby is 7 1/2 months, officials said.

“We’ve focused on looking at family problems, childhood deprivation and how that affects moods and behavior,” said staff psychologist Bruce Brodie, who oversees the therapy program at the Kirby Center. “Most of them have had food on the table but no one to give them guidance, consistent love.”


The young prisoners have a six-period school day with the usual subjects--math, science, home economics. There is a work study program and a theater class.

Nine students received their high school diplomas last year from Kirby, and there were 14 graduates the year before, Principal Dolores Richie said.

A round of group therapy takes place during or after each school day. Eight of the 10 girls who gathered one day in a dormitory said they had been involved in gang activity. Kirby officials estimate that about three of four youths at Kirby committed gang-related offenses.

After some gentle prodding by a social worker, a 14-year-old girl began to open up.

The girl, who lived in the Southeast area, had been raped and molested by an uncle and two cousins when she was 6 years old. She had told only one person about the assaults--another cousin.

“I feel dirty,” said the girl, who was serving time for burglary. “This has been bugging me for the longest time.”

A couple of the other girls started crying. One girl had been molested by a brother. A box of tissues circulated before ending up on the floor in the middle of the group.

The sessions are often filled with conflict.


In a boys group, a comment had angered a 17-year-old with slicked-back hair. The youth was a gang-banger who was arrested for having a gun used in a fatal shooting. He has been at Kirby for six months.

Social worker Stacy Peyer asked the youth if he was angry. His legs were crossed and his foot was pumping as he became defiant.

“Yeah, because you’re (messing) with me,” he said.

After the session, he cussed out Peyer and was sent to an isolation room. Discipline at Kirby ranges from having to stay an hour in a bedroom to being transferred from the program to a more traditional juvenile camp.

In an interview afterward, the youth said his volatile temper has always been a problem.

“Sometimes I just don’t use good judgment, just impulse,” he said.

The youth and several others praised the Kirby Center and said they thought it gave them a chance to succeed.

“This is Disneyland,” commented one ward.

Peyer compared the treatment the teen-agers get at Kirby to what they would receive from good parents. Many of the wards come from broken homes, and the majority have suffered sexual or physical abuse, Kirby officials said.

“I tell them all the time, ‘You were dealt a lousy hand . . . but now you have a choice,” Peyer said. “What are you going to do about it?’ ”

Some of the youths rebel. During 1990, 28 wards were transferred out of Kirby Center for violations such as being uncooperative with staff and fighting, said Star French, a staff supervisor at the facility.

Last year, 94 wards completed the program and were sent home to their parents or guardians, French said.

Probation officers are careful to head off any romantic encounters between boys and girls at the facility, French said. One ward confirmed that some hugging and kissing goes on, but he said more serious sexual relations were out of the question because of the tight supervision.

There was one escape from the facility in 1990. The boy, who was serving time for stealing from his family, was apprehended after about six weeks, French said. He spent the next seven months in Juvenile Hall and was returned to his family.

The program gets high marks for its relatively low rate of recidivism.

A California Youth Authority survey indicated that 67% of the boys who leave county-run camps statewide are incarcerated again after two years. The statewide recidivism rate for females is 45.1%. The figures for Kirby are 48.9% and 31.2%, respectively, even though its youths have more problems than those in the average camp.

The survey studied youths who left county camps in 1982. Data on a survey of 1984 juveniles has not yet been released, Zipperstein said.

The director said the relatively high cost of operating the Kirby Center has kept the county from setting up similar programs. The county spends about $4.6 million a year to run the lockup and provide mental health services, Zipperstein said. The county spends about $2.8 million to run a standard county camp, which houses about 25 more youths than Kirby. Schooling costs are about the same in both institutions.

Several Superior Court judges and commissioners interviewed by The Times said they consider the additional expense to be a sound investment.

“It’s clear we have a lot of very disturbed kids,” said Long Beach Superior Court Judge Victor T. Barrera, who works the juvenile division. “The old battering ram approach, ‘we send you there and they clobber you,’ that really doesn’t work.”