L.A. County acts on youth camp safety

Hennessy-Fiske is a Times staff writer.

Threatened by a federal lawsuit over dangerous conditions at Los Angeles County’s juvenile probation camps, county supervisors said Tuesday that they will hire a team of independent monitors to improve safety at the 19 facilities.

“The county finally conceded it needed to address issues in the camps,” Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. “The Department of Justice forced probation’s hand.”

In a scathing federal report issued late last month, justice officials who inspected the camps last year found poorly trained staff members who were routinely violating standards. The county supervises about 2,000 juveniles at long-term probation camps at any given time and a similar number in temporary detention at probation halls.


The report, based on inspections, records and interviews with juvenile offenders, found that probation officers roughed up minors under their supervision, instigated or allowed fights, denied medical treatment and drank alcohol in staff quarters. Among the specific findings:

* More than 82% of staff at Camp Kilpatrick had never been trained on how to safely restrain youths. At some other camps, staff had not received use-of-force training in a decade.

* Supervisors at Camp Scott, a camp for girls, failed to report an inappropriate relationship between a youth and a staff member to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, despite the fact that the same staff member had been implicated in two prior abuse reports.

* Probation staff members at the Challenger Camps and Camp Scott who were assigned to supervise youths at risk for committing suicide arrived late and falsified reports to cover up their absence.

Probation Chief Robert Taylor said Tuesday that he does not see the report as “unfavorable.”

“I look at it as an opportunity to bring our facilities up to where they should be,” he said. Youths “are absolutely safe at these camps. I don’t think their safety was in jeopardy, in spite of that report. We had some employees who were not treating them as they should have been, and they need to be disciplined.”


Taylor said his office has substantiated allegations made in the report against nine staff members, and they are still being investigated, though none have been fired.

The criticism of the county’s probation camps marks the latest round of problems for a department that has come under federal scrutiny in recent years for mistreatment of youth offenders. The county has extended its deadline for making improvements to its three probation halls by 27 months under a 2004 agreement with the Justice Department. After failing to make improvements within a year, the probation department now has until December 2009.

County supervisors Tuesday said they appointed the same independent monitor working with the halls, former Los Angeles County Assistant Sheriff Michael Graham, to manage improvements at the camps, as well as three other monitors who have worked with the department. Graham will oversee additional hires, who will be paid up to $200 an hour for a maximum of $1,600 a day, to monitor conditions at the camps and ensure the county complies with the 47 areas of improvement in the agreement.

Graham’s appointment troubled some children’s advocates.

“The idea that someone who can’t get the halls to raise their levels of expertise would be responsible for 19 more facilities seems ridiculous to me,” said Kim McGill, who works with probation youths and their families through the nonprofit Youth Justice Coalition.

Yaroslavsky said the board is attempting to build on work done at the halls but expects probation to make changes sooner at the camps. “They’re on a short leash from the board and the Justice Department. They’re going to be monitored, and there are deadlines to be met,” he said.

Taylor has four months to submit a plan to improve the camps, then four years to make improvements, according to the federal agreement, although he said he expects to be able to make the necessary changes in two years.


There are currently 1,600 probation staff members assigned to the camps, insufficient to meet the state-recommended staff level of 1 to 15 youths.

Yaroslavsky said it will likely cost tens of millions of dollars to add and train additional staff at those levels.