Op-Ed: L.A. County’s juvenile facilities need leaders willing to fix a broken system

LOS ANGELES-CA-JULY 23, 2014: Services Director Melissa Stutenroth passes through an old walkway at
A Probation Department staff member passes through an old walkway at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles on July 23, 2014.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

There is a video online of Los Angeles County Probation Chief Terri McDonald addressing a gathering of women in criminal justice last year where she describes how she arrived at her career choice. She jovially tells the packed auditorium that she didn’t go into corrections because of a “profound desire to heal human beings,” but rather because she “played softball with some women who were prison guards and they drove nice cars.”

Although she went on in her speech to say she has come to approach corrections with compassion, her initial laugh line reveals a lot about the woman who runs the largest and highest-profile youth detention program in the world. As the guardian of thousands of youths from backgrounds saturated with trauma, McDonald should realize there is little room for humor in discussing her motivation, especially when she and her second in command over juveniles, Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell, preside over a failing system.

For the record:
9:15 AM, May. 28, 2019 An earlier version of this article said that oversight of children in detention often falls to deputy service officers. It should have said detention service officers. Also, the article said the Board of Supervisors has ordered the use of pepper spray to be phased out in juvenile detention facilities by the end of 2020. The supervisors have ordered it phased out by the end of 2019, although the department recently notified the board it would not fully eliminate use of the spray until the end of 2020.

As The Times recently reported, the Probation Department’s halls and camps housing juvenile offenders are in such disarray that large numbers of staffers don’t report for work out of fear. Those who do show up often have to work double shifts, which leads to exhaustion. Riots by detained youths, previously a rarity, now occur with regularity.

The grievance system as constituted is run internally — the fox guarding the hen house, essentially — and it isn’t trusted by the youths.

Yet when a Times reporter asked Mitchell to comment on the current situation, she downplayed it, saying it was to be expected. Mitchell went on to describe property damage from a recent brawl as an isolated situation and then talked about how the department has become more therapeutic, citing as evidence that three NFL players and their coach recently visited Central Juvenile Hall to give a motivational pep talk.

Actually, chaos in county youth facilities is widespread, and brawling should never be “expected,” especially not in a department in which costs per youth are well above $300,000 annually. On Thursday, officials from the California Department of Justice visited two of the troubled facilities, which The Times called a sign that conditions in them are “drawing the attention of state monitors.”

County supervisors, thankfully, do not consider the violence acceptable either. Alarmed by the dysfunction even before it skyrocketed, they created the Probation Reform Implementation Team last year to assess the department’s most important needs. The team is scheduled to report its findings next month and will provide recommendations for a new Probation Oversight Commission. This new body will replace the existing Probation Commission, on which I serve. The present commission inspects juvenile facilities, but lacks adequate investigatory resources and powers.

Department officials have made the case that they should be commended for lowering the populations in the facilities and, in some cases, closing them. They claim that the increased violence is largely due to the fact that only the more dangerous and troubled kids are now housed there.


In reality, the lower population is more a result of courts no longer sending as many youths to the facilities, especially for probation violations or misdemeanors.

The “dangerous” youths in question — including those with serious mental health issues — have always existed at these facilities, although they now compose the majority. But the problem is that their oversight now often falls to detention service officers, whose primary training and role is as guards, not care supervisors. Without adequate mental health resources and training, guards often resort to using pepper spray and other controversial methods to control these youths, further exacerbating the trauma.

Recently this paper reported that Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey had charged six guards with assault for pepper-spraying youths in a particularly vindictive manner. For a department notorious for mistreatment and neglect, it is even more alarming that in recent years, the use of pepper spray has risen to levels never before seen, even tripling at some halls. The Board of Supervisors has ordered its use to be phased out by the end of 2019, although the department recently notified the board it would not completely eliminate use of the spray until the end of 2020.

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By continually denying much of the departmental dysfunction and concerning themselves more with the message than the mess, department leaders have created a very dangerous environment for youths and staff alike. The department has failed to prioritize and facilitate the kind of positive relationship-building essential to a therapeutic, rehabilitative operation. There is a serious need for more training in youth development and trauma-informed care, for enrichment programming, for staff with mental health expertise and for a better grievance system.

The grievance system as constituted is run internally — the fox guarding the hen house, essentially — and it isn’t trusted by the youths, who fear their complaints will result in retaliation. As incarcerated kids have told me repeatedly, they are afraid to complain because “snitches get stitches.”

The leadership has regularly defended the current system, however, even after the county awarded a $1-million settlement to a girl who endured a year of sexual abuse by the probation officer assigned to her case. According to a lawsuit, she had reported the man’s behavior.

Without leaders committed to helping heal incarcerated, traumatized youths and implement rehabilitative methods to improve the system, the problems will only continue to worsen and conditions will become increasingly dangerous.


Jacqueline Jacobs Caster is founder and president of the Everychild Foundation and a member of the Los Angeles County Probation Commission. She is expressing her personal views, not those of the commission.

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