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Calif. juvenile hall faces possible shutdown just months after reopening

The looming deadline comes after Los Padrinos and the Barry J. Nidorf Secure Youth Treatment Facility failed key inspections in January

Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall

Downey, CA - June 29: Aerial view of Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey Thursday, June 29, 2023. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Allen J. Schaben/TNS

By Jason Henry
Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES — State regulators will decide Feb. 15 whether to shut down the newly reopened Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, potentially leaving Los Angeles County with hundreds of detained juveniles and no suitable facility large enough to hold them.

The looming deadline comes after Los Padrinos in Downey and the Barry J. Nidorf Secure Youth Treatment Facility in Sylmar failed key inspections in January. State inspectors determined the Los Angeles County Probation Department remains out of compliance with California regulations and has not properly addressed substandard conditions at the juvenile facilities, contrary to the claims of probation officials.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, whose district includes Los Padrinos in Downey, expressed her disappointment that the Board of State and Community Corrections is considering shutting down two more of the county’s juvenile facilities.

“We have long known what the BSCC’s expectations were and it is troubling that the department made so little progress and fell so short in meeting them,” she said in a statement. “It is clear that our Probation Department has enormous challenges, from staffing to programming, but it is imperative that we bring these two facilities into compliance because the future of the youth in our care is in jeopardy.”

Hahn pledged to “put every available County resource” behind the necessary improvements.

Not enough time, probation chief says

In a statement, probation chief Guillermo Viera Rosa blamed the department’s failure to fix the juvenile facilities on the severe deadlines imposed by the state. The county had to scramble over a two-month period to transfer nearly 300 youth to Los Padrinos last year when the BSCC forced the closure of Central and Barry J. Nidorf juvenile halls over similar conditions.

“BSCC chose to set the timeline despite our request for 150 days to properly transition the youth from Central and Barry J. Nidorf to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall and institute change,” Viera Rosa said in a statement. “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.”

Conflicting requirements from the BSCC and the California Department of Justice , which separately won a court order against the county, created confusion and “a significant hindrance to our progress toward achieving compliance,” Viera Rosa said.

Under state law, a juvenile facility deemed “unsuitable” by the BSCC is given 60 days to address outstanding issues, or it must close. The BSCC declared Central and Barry J. Nidorf , which housed roughly 300 juveniles combined, “unsuitable” last year after persistent short staffing left the facilities in such poor conditions that youth were routinely missing school and forced to urinate in their rooms overnight because there weren’t enough employees to take them to the restroom.

Same issues at Los PadrinosAhead of the impending closures, the county opted to merge the two juvenile halls at Los Padrinos, which had closed in 2019, in hopes that a single juvenile hall would allow for more efficient use of the department’s available staff. Viera Rosa also ordered probation officers working in the field to work mandated shifts in the juvenile facilities to fill in the gaps caused by a high number of call-outs and medical leaves.

The BSCC’s inspectors almost immediately found the same issues at Los Padrinos and the SYTF, a separate unit for sentenced youth at Barry J. Nidorf that was not affected by last year’s closure.

Los Padrinos experienced two violent escape attempts within the first four months of reopening. The department had to put eight officers on leave for allegedly standing by while a group of juveniles beat a teen.

In October, Los Angeles County submitted — and the BSCC accepted — a “corrective action plan” for both facilities that would bring each up to the state’s minimum standards. Probation officials subsequently notified the state they had completed that work in January.

Only 1 of 12 violations corrected

But when inspectors showed up last month to verify that claim, they found the county hadn’t corrected most of the deficiencies. At Los Padrinos, only one out of 12 violations were fixed. Similarly, at the SYTF, only three out of 10 areas of noncompliance had been addressed.

A staffing analysis at both facilities found that “minimum staffing numbers were not consistently met” and that the reassigned field staff meant to bolster the ranks were no longer showing up. In a letter, Lisa Southwell, the BSCC’s field representative, was “unsure how compliance will be achieved and maintained” because each facility’s corrective action plan hinged on having enough staff available.

At Los Padrinos, inspectors found that youth continue to arrive late to school 49% of the time as a result. Other findings indicated the department is not providing enough recreational programs and activities, is not consistently conducting searches for contraband and performing safety checks, and has failed to properly train its employees on room confinements and use of force.

The department also failed to develop a fire safety plan in the event that Los Padrinos needs to be evacuated and has yet to fully implement a required behavioral management program with incentives for the detained youths to work toward, according to a notice sent by the BSCC.

Los Angeles County officials now must appear before the BSCC at its Feb. 15 meeting to plead their case.

Aditi Sherikar, a senior policy associate with the Children’s Defense Fund California, said the BSCC must declare both facilities unsuitable as the Probation Department has missed the 90-day statutory deadline to implement its corrective action plans.

Electronic monitoring?

If Los Padrinos and the SYTF are closed, Sherikar said the county does not have enough space at its other facilities to relocate the youths again. She hopes the county will instead invest in alternatives, such as electronic monitoring, that will return the youths — most of whom have been charged but not convicted — back to their communities and reduce the overall juvenile population to a more manageable level.

“I think this is a wake-up call for L.A. County to look at what is the common denominator here,” she said. “It’s not the walls, it’s not the structures, it’s the department.”

More than 300 youths will remain in substandard conditions for every day that the facilities are allowed to stay open, she said.

“None of these violations are new,” she said. “They are almost exactly the same as they were last year and the year before that.”

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