California regulators again declare 2 LA County juvenile facilities 'unsuitable'

City News Service
Saturday, February 17, 2024
Regulators again declare 2 LA County juvenile facilities 'unsuitable'
A state regulatory board deemed two Los Angeles County juvenile detention centers "unsuitable" to house youth detainees.

DOWNEY, Calif. (CNS) -- A state regulatory board Thursday deemed two Los Angeles County juvenile detention centers "unsuitable" to house youth detainees, beginning a 60-day clock for the county to rectify issues of noncompliance, after which the board could order the facilities to close.

The California Board of State and Community Corrections, meeting in Sacramento, unanimously voted to approve the "unsuitable" designation for the recently opened Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey and the Barry J. Nidorf Secure Youth Treatment Facility in Sylmar.

Los Padrinos houses pre-disposition youth detainees awaiting resolution of their court cases, while the Nidorf SYTF facility holds post- disposition youth offenders who have already been convicted.

The county hastily reopened Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall last year and transferred all pre-disposition youth to the facility, moving them away from Nidorf Hall in Sylmar and Central Juvenile Hall in Lincoln Heights, which were both declared unsuitable and ordered to close by the BSCC.

At that time, the BSCC did not have jurisdiction over the Nidorf Secure Youth Treatment Facility for post-disposition youth, but it was granted that authority by the state later in the year.

Thursday's decision by the BSCC leaves the future of youth detention in the county in question, although county Probation Department officials tried to convince the board that it is already in substantial compliance with state regulations, despite the findings of recent board inspections.

The Probation Department has been under fire for years over the operation of juvenile detention facilities. The Los Angeles County Department of Parole released a statement that read in part: "It is important to note that with no alternative site or plan proposed by our governing agencies, we are required to continue housing and providing care for the young people placed with us by the courts, and we will do that."

County Supervisor Janice Hahn issued a statement following Thursday's board meeting questioning whether the agency can be trusted to make needed changes.

Eight Los Angeles County probation officers have been placed on administrative leave following a "significant incident" last month at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, officials announced Wednesday.

"It is unfortunate that the Probation Department made excuses at today's BSCC meeting instead of owning up to the unacceptable conditions at two of our probation facilities," Hahn said. "The BSCC wants to see real change and I expect the same. Multiple probation chiefs have been unable to fix the problems facing the department. I am concerned about the future of the Probation Department and whether they are capable of the reform that we all know needs to happen."

The BSCC's decision found the Nidorf SYTF out of compliance with state regulations pertaining to staffing levels, training, use of force training, disciplinary procedures and youth access to programs and recreation.

Los Padrinos was found to have significantly more issues, with noncompliance found in staffing levels, fire safety plans, safety checks, room confinement procedures, use of force training, searches, education programs, youth access to programs and recreation and disciplinary procedures.

During the meeting, county Probation Department Deputy Chief Kimberly Epps pleaded the agency's case, insisting improvements had been made to address all of the board's areas of concern, and claiming in some instances that the issue was one of documentation, rather than actual poor practices.

She conceded, however, that there has been a long history of shortcomings by the agency, noting at one point that "we understand people are tired of seeing us" before the BSCC.

"We know we are bankrupt in credibility," Epps said at another point, but she insisted that the department's new leadership is committed to improvement and change.

She asked the board to the delay the determinations of unsuitability and instead approve the creation of an "Operational Reconstruction Strike Team," which would include BSCC officials and the county Probation Department "to assist in an extensive operational reconstruction of its juvenile hall compliance efforts."

BSCC board members, however, balked at that idea, saying that state agency's staff is always available to assist the county, and insisting the BSCC should not be involved in the on-site management of the facilities.

Not long after it opened last year, Los Padrinos was quickly plagued with problems. The facility experienced a pair of escapes, although both detainees were quickly re-apprehended. In January, eight probation officers were placed on leave for a "significant incident" involving detainees. The Los Angeles Times reported that the officers stood idly by while a teen detainee was beaten by a group of other youths.

Several community members who spoke at Thursday's BSCC meetings alleged that probation officers would stage "gladiator fights" among youth detainees.

"Every day a young person is in the facility, they are in danger," one speaker told the board.

Another speaker representing the Youth Justice Coalition added, "It is upon you all to find these facilities unsuitable for youth. If this was your children in there, you would find it unsuitable."

One probation officer, however, decried suggestions that the staff is responsible for issues at the facilities, nothing that some of the youth "are in there for some heinous crimes," including murder. She said probation officers in the facilities are the ones "being spit on and getting feces thrown at us."

"I'm sick and tired of everyone coming after us when it's our management that's the problem," she said.

Following the BSCC vote, county Supervisor Hilda Solis issued a statement tying persistent problems at the facility to "staff who have long- held leadership positions who have abused their authority, turned a blind eye and created a culture that has enabled rank-and-file staff to operate with impunity, no accountability and a complete disregard for regulations, policies and standards."

She called on staff union representatives to "steer away from defending and supporting staff who are engaging in abuse, negligence and dereliction of duty."

"The cycle of Probation juvenile facilities continuing to be in and out of compliance and being found unsuitable needs to end," Solis said.

BSCC inspectors reviewed both Los Padrinos and Nidorf Hall last August and reported multiple areas of non-compliance with state regulations. The county responded with corrective action plans and follow-up reports indicating it was achieving compliance.

But follow-up inspections conducted in January and February continued to find both facilities still out of compliance -- with nearly a dozen shortcomings listed at Los Padrinos and seven problem areas lingering at Nidorf.

In a statement last week, county Chief Probation Officer Guillermo Viera Rosa said the agency is committed to bringing the facilities into full compliance. But he added, "Making the comprehensive changes requested by the BSCC and shifting the overall culture of the county's juvenile institutions is a monumental undertaking that necessitates both time and dedication."

"We have the dedication, we need the time. The issues identified by BSCC and others have been persistent for over 20 years. We cannot piecemeal the solution. This is a systemic problem that requires changing an entire operational culture."

He also referenced what he called "conflicting requirements" imposed by the BSCC and state Department of Justice as hampering the efforts.

"It's important to understand that these conflicting mandates create confusion, add complexity to our compliance efforts, and ultimately delay our ability to meet the standards set by the BSCC and other external agencies," Rosa said. "Streamlining and harmonizing these requirements is essential to expediting our compliance efforts and ensuring that we can effectively meet all regulatory obligations."

He repeatedly insisted that BSCC has declined to give the county enough time to fully implement operational changes.

"While the goals that BSCC has given to us are not ambitious in and of themselves -- the timeframe they gave us to complete the work is," he said. "To effectuate meaningful change, it is imperative to address deeply ingrained practices and foster a cultural shift that prioritizes rehabilitation, support, and the well-being of the young individuals in our care."