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U.S. Probes County’s Juvenile Facilities

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division has launched an investigation into the treatment of children at Los Angeles County’s juvenile detention facilities, the county’s chief probation officer said Monday.

A team of experts hired by the Justice Department will examine medical, mental health and educational programs as well as living conditions at the county’s juvenile halls and camps, said Richard Shumsky, who heads the Probation Department.

Shumsky said local officials were informed of the probe about two months ago.

Justice Department officials in Washington could not be reached for comment Monday.

The Probation Department, which handles about 18,000 juvenile offenders at any time, came under fire last year in a series of articles by the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a legal newspaper, and in a report by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury.

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In its annual report on government last June, the grand jury said Los Angeles County’s juvenile facilities were substandard and called on the Board of Supervisors to fund improvements.

The Eastlake Central Juvenile Hall, it said, “can best be described as falling apart.” The newest part of the facility was constructed in 1941.

Camp Scobee, part of the Challenger Memorial Youth Center in Lancaster, was described this way:

“This camp has a large number of mentally challenged youth, and this was used as the excuse for the unsightly situation we encountered. Restrooms and barracks had urine and dirty clothing all over the floors. Bunk pads were all sliced up as if to hide things in them. There were extreme amounts of graffiti, filth was abundant, and it appeared there was little or no discipline.”

The grand jury rated several other camps as good, and offered special praise for Camp Kilpatrick in Malibu.

The Daily Journal articles focused on the plight of children with mental illnesses and learning disabilities who went untreated at juvenile facilities.

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This is the second time that Los Angeles County’s juvenile detention system has come under federal scrutiny. The civil rights division investigated the Probation Department’s treatment of juvenile offenders from 1985 to 1990, focusing on some of the same issues cited in its letter to the county two months ago. The earlier investigation was closed without a lawsuit against the county.

The Justice Department is empowered to investigate juvenile correctional systems around the country under a 20-year-old law aimed at protecting the civil rights of incarcerated youths.

If the investigation reveals a “pattern or practice” of violations, the civil rights division sends the problem agency a letter detailing its findings and recommending remedies.

The law requires the Justice Department to wait at least seven weeks for a response before filing a lawsuit. More than 100 juvenile correction systems have been investigated. Only a handful of local agencies have been sued.

Shumsky said he was not distressed about the probe. “We’re going to be very forthcoming,” he said.

“We see this as an opportunity. It’s no secret that there needs to be a whole infusion of more money into the juvenile justice system. The grand jury saw that, the Board of Supervisors recognizes that.”

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The probation chief said many buildings housing juvenile offenders were constructed 50 years ago or more and would not meet state standards for new facilities. They continue to be used under a grandfather clause that exempts them from the current standards.

Recently, however, the county added 240 beds at Sylmar Juvenile Hall that comply with the regulations, Shumsky said. He said another 240 beds will be available at Eastlake Juvenile Hall in three years and that 240 more are being sought for Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey.

Jean Huston, who handles justice issues for Supervisor Mike Antonovich, said many of the mental health deficiencies cited in the grand jury report are being addressed under a bill signed last year by Gov. Gray Davis. It earmarks about $35 million to Los Angeles County for juvenile crime prevention.

Of that amount, $8 million to $9 million will go to mental health programs at the juvenile detention facilities, she said.

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