‘We’re screwed’: L.A. County empties troubled juvenile hall ahead of state board’s inspection
The L.A. County Probation Department hastily moved out all children housed in its troubled Central Juvenile Hall over the weekend, ahead of an inspection from state regulators, officials said.
In interviews with The Times, Probation Department employees described the transfer of approximately 140 children, some with mental health and serious behavior issues, as disorganized and dangerous.
Probation officials gave employees little to no warning of the move and had insufficient staff on hand to conduct the transfers safely, according to an email reviewed by The Times and two employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The employees said some of the transferred youths lashed out when they arrived at Barry J. Nidorf Hall in Sylmar, throwing fire extinguishers and, in one case, hurling urine at a probation officer’s face. Parents were not notified of the move, and many showed up at Central Juvenile Hall for scheduled visits unaware that their children had been relocated, according to the employees and a statement from L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis.
The decision to shut down Central Juvenile Hall for 90 days was announced to department staff on Friday in an email from Deputy Probation Chief Karen Fletcher. In the email, a copy of which was reviewed by The Times, Fletcher cited the department’s failure to correct problems at the hall that had been identified by state regulators as the reason for the closure.
Juvenile offenders will be housed at camps in Malibu, Santa Clarita and Commerce, supervisors decide
Supervisor Holly Mitchell said the move reflects a philosophy of rehabilitating young offenders over a punishment-based system.
In September, the California Board of State and Community Corrections, or BSCC, which oversees county juvenile systems, determined that L.A. County’s halls were unsuitable to care for youths.
The inspection last year found that probation staffers were not giving children proper health screenings upon admitting them to halls and were not properly documenting the justification for placing some youths in isolation. It was the first time since the state board was formed 10 years ago that it concluded that a county facility was unfit to operate.
The Probation Department was ordered to either fix the issues or relocate all children in the county’s juvenile halls within 60 days. In November, state regulators determined that both facilities had addressed the problems, but a follow-up investigation last month at Central Juvenile Hall turned up new problems, according to a letter the state board sent to the Probation Department.
An investigator discovered that a youth had been held in isolation at the facility for 11 days and “had not been receiving exercise or recreation outside of their room,” according to the letter. The BSCC determined that keeping a child locked up under those conditions violated state regulations.
State inspectors were scheduled to return to the county’s juvenile halls this week, said Tracie Cone, a spokeswoman for the board. But last week, county probation officials alerted the board that they would temporarily close Central Juvenile Hall to address the problems inspectors had uncovered.
Karla Tovar, head of communications for the Probation Department, said 135 children were moved from Central to Nidorf Halls over the weekend. She declined to comment on instances of violence but said there were no known injuries to youths or staff.
“The Department is working to provide additional training for our staff and make facility improvements to ensure the safety and security of the youth and staff,” she said. “A temporary 90-day suspension of operations required the Department to move the youth immediately.”
At least 20 women say they were sexually assaulted at Camp Scott, Los Angeles County’s all-girls juvenile detention facility, according to a lawsuit.
The state board is scheduled to revisit the question of whether L.A. County’s juvenile facilities should be allowed to operate on April 7, Cone said.
Although the inspection planned for this week had been “scheduled for some time,” Cone said, county probation staffers had less than a day to come up with a plan to move the children from Central Hall, Fletcher’s email to staff shows.
One probation official said the rush to shutter Central Juvenile Hall came after its staff began to review footage from the facility’s security cameras in advance of the inspection. The review revealed that, among other shortcomings, safety checks were not being performed when children were alone in their rooms, the official said.
“While they’re preparing for this inspection … they start looking at the videos, and they realize, ‘We’re screwed,’” the official said.
Probation officials had hoped to transfer all the children Saturday, but they couldn’t get sufficient staffers together on such short notice, so they carried out the move over two days, the two Probation Department employees said.
One of the employees expressed concern that the sudden, unexplained move to new surroundings was especially difficult for the many children in the juvenile system who struggle with mental illness.
“When they have severe mental health issues, or have self-injurious behavior, that could have been a very dangerous situation,” the employee said. “What you do is, you prep the kids, you get the mental health clinician involved, and you do it in increments.”
Tovar denied claims that parents of transferred youths were not properly notified.
Solis, who co-wrote a motion for the board to study the possibility of closing Central Juvenile Hall that was heard Tuesday, slammed the Probation Department’s handling of the situation.
“The chaotic transfer of almost 140 youth from Central Juvenile Hall to Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall is unacceptable. There was no advance notice to staff or to the parents and families who were hoping to visit their kids at Central,” she said in a statement. “I recognize that BSCC told Probation that this transfer needed to occur quickly, but the rushed timeline only further traumatized these youth and families who have already endured so much.”
It was unclear why Solis suggested that the BSCC ordered the Probation Department to empty the juvenile hall. Cone, the BSCC’s director of communications, said that was inaccurate.
Documents reviewed by The Times show it was Chief Probation Officer Adolfo Gonzales who initiated the discussion about closing Central Juvenile Hall.
The detention officer’s email described “chaos” inside one of Los Angeles County’s juvenile halls.
The move was the latest in a string of controversies for the county’s juvenile system.
The day before, two incidents described by the employees as “riots” erupted at Central Juvenile Hall. In total, they said, about 40 children were involved in the brawls. In January, an unidentified person pretending to be a healthcare worker was able to bypass security at Nidorf Hall and swab the mouths of several children.
While Gonzalez said Tuesday that the Probation Department expects to reopen Central Juvenile Hall in less than three months, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors passed a motion to study the possibility of shuttering the facility for good.
Citing repeated allegations of abuse and decrepit living conditions at the hall — including a 2014 Los Angeles County grand jury report calling for it to be “torn down” — the supervisors asked whether there was any point in trying to rehabilitate the facility.
“Given the age of Central Juvenile Hall, this is a Sisyphean task — a continuous and expensive problem to maintain an aging and decrepit facility,” the motion read. “In light of the never-ending issues with the facility’s suitability, we must question whether the facility can even be fully repaired. It is time to assess all possibilities and ask whether it makes more sense — fiscally and morally — to close Central Juvenile Hall.”
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.