18-year-old dies of overdose in Calif. juvenile hall, as state suggests shutdown
In the wake of a staffing crisis and reports of increased violence and drug use, a state agency report called for Los Angeles County's juvenile halls to be closed
By James Queally
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — A state oversight agency issued a report Tuesday calling for Los Angeles County's juvenile halls to be shuttered in the wake of a staffing crisis and reports of increased violence and drug use, just hours after an 18-year-old was found dead of an apparent overdose in one of the deteriorating facilities.
The young man was found unresponsive in his room at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, according to a statement issued late Tuesday morning by the L.A. County Probation Department. Staff deployed Narcan, a nasal spray that can reverse an opioid overdose, but he could not be revived and was pronounced dead a short time later.
The victim's identity was not immediately released, and the department did not comment further on the cause of death or the type of drug that caused the overdose. He lived in the Secure Youth Treatment Facility, where those accused of serious and violent crimes are housed, according to sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the Probation Department. The young man was convicted of attempted murder and transferred to SYTF just six weeks ago, several of the sources said.
Hours after word of the death surfaced, the California Board of State and Community Corrections issued a staff report recommending that the halls be shuttered within 60 days of its next meeting, in late May.
According to the nine-page report, the Probation Department continues to fail to adequately staff the halls while holding youth in isolation for far longer than allowed under state guidelines. The department has also failed to meet state requirements related to use of force and performing safety checks on youths in isolation.
[Related: From fake food deliveries to drones: How drugs get into L.A. County's juvenile halls]
High-ranking officials at Nidorf and L.A.'s Central Juvenile Hall were either unaware of the Probation Department's corrective action plan or had failed to implement significant portions of it, according to the BSCC report.
"No significant items of noncompliance have been corrected. Staffing remains at deficient levels and there is no indication that the remaining aspects of the plan could be timely implemented so that the facilities would come into compliance by June 12, 2023," the BSCC report says.
Tracie Cone, a BSCC spokeswoman said the report was drafted before the 18-year-old's death. She declined to comment on the overdose. The BSCC does not have jurisdiction over Secure Youth Treatment Facilities in California but could have moved to shutter the hall where L.A. County hosts its SYTF program.
Shutting down the halls will require a simple majority vote of the board at its May 24 meeting, Cone said.
Guillermo Viera Rosa, the Probation Department's newly appointed chief strategist for juvenile operations, said in a statement that he agrees with the plan to close the halls.
"That's why the Board of Supervisors approved our plan last week to move this population of youth to the Los Padrinos facility, which will be renovated to meet the state standards," he said.
In response to questions about the overdose, Viera Rosa said he was "heartbroken" over the death and that nursing staff had administered Narcan immediately upon finding the young man.
The Probation Department declined to answer additional questions about the overdose.
In a memo issued to his officers, however, Viera Rosa said he would launch stepped-up security measures to try and stem the flow of drugs into the juvenile halls. Staff and visitors will be allowed to enter with clear bags only, and members of the department's special enforcement operations team will begin conducting "extensive searches of all visitors and staff, as well as housing units," according to the document. The department also plans to issue metal-detector wands to some officers and obtain "vapor tracer machines" to detect trace amounts of drugs on people entering the halls, according to the memo.
Additionally, the memo calls for the "procurement of anti-drone technology" to stop "contraband drops" to the halls. While probation officials have long contended that drones are being used to ferry drugs to youths in the halls, several attorneys who routinely defend juvenile clients have dismissed the notion as an urban legend.
The Times has learned the 18-year-old's identity but is withholding it until notification of next of kin and because he was in a youth facility. A call to his attorney was not returned. Two sources said he had been dead for hours before being found by probation officials, raising questions about whether officers conducted mandatory safety checks overnight.
As news of the death broke Tuesday morning, juvenile justice advocates were furious that oversight agencies — specifically, the BSCC — had not moved to shut the L.A. County halls sooner.
The oversight body has deemed both Nidorf and Central unsuitable to house youths numerous times since 2021, and a Times investigation last year revealed that the halls were spiraling out of control as probation officers refused to come to work and reports of violence surged.
Last month, the L.A. County Office of the Inspector General issued a report raising alarms about rampant drug use within the Secure Youth Treatment Facility.
The BSCC was expected to vote in April to shutter the halls due to the Probation Department's repeated failure to comply with state standards but punted at the last minute and gave the department a chance to implement a corrective action plan.
"There are a number of local and state agencies that were keenly aware of the inadequate staffing and supervision that has led to completely unsafe conditions at Barry J. Nidorf and within [the Secure Youth Treatment Facility]. Increasing incidents of overdoses and violence are publicly known," said Brooke Harris, executive director of the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, who noted that Tuesday's death was "predictable."
"The BSCC has been grappling with issues before it for months and yet decided to give Los Angeles County an additional month to correct problems that had been present for two years," she continued. "This is an emergency, and it should never have reached a point where a young person died in the care of a dysfunctional county agency."
Concerns about drug use inside SYTF have increased in recent weeks. A report released last month by the inspector general detailed two incidents in late February in which youths were taken to local medical facilities or revived with Narcan after overdoses involving fentanyl.
An early-March search of the unit where the teens overdosed uncovered pills laced with fentanyl and "two large bindles of what appeared to be fentanyl" inside a dormitory, according to the inspector general's report.
In a March hearing about those overdoses, an attorney representing one of the youths said they had recently been transitioned to Los Angeles from the state Division of Juvenile Justice, which Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered closed in 2019 and will be fully shut down by July.
The attorney, alternate public defender Angeles Zaragoza, said the youths did not have issues with drugs before returning to L.A. County, according to a transcript of the hearing.
During the hearing, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Miguel Espinoza expressed concern that the situation could soon turn fatal, as it did Tuesday.
"It appears that it was a stroke of luck that the individuals that came across these two youths were trained in the use of Narcan and actually had it accessible," Espinoza said. "If the youth had been in a different unit, or it had been at a time when there was an untrained staff member, it appears highly likely that one or both of the youths would have passed away."
A person who worked closely with the 18-year-old but requested anonymity for fear of retribution from county officials said the young man did not have issues with drugs before arriving at the SYTF.
"Everyone who had been in his unit was just like in disbelief, because he was such a good kid. His mom was, like, everything to him. He would call his mom. … He was helpful in the unit. … All he wanted was car magazines," the county employee said.
"He was a fun kid to talk to. He was not some crazy, raging drug addict," the employee added. "He was a kid that was sent to Sylmar, and because of all the drugs over there ended up overdosing and dying."
The Probation Department did not respond to additional questions about the victim or the reason he was in custody.
All five members of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors described the death as indefensible and called for an investigation into how the overdose occurred in county custody.
"It is inexcusable for a young person to die of an overdose within the care and custody of Los Angeles County's juvenile halls," said Supervisor Holly Mitchell.
"His life mattered, and this failure is unacceptable," added Supervisor Lindsey Horvath. "We must do better."
But Hans Liang, president of the union representing deputy probation officers, said the supervisors' refusal to approve the hiring of new officers played a significant role in the 18-year-old's death.
"The officers did everything in their power to revive the youth, including applying CPR and administering Narcan," Liang said in a statement. "The bottom line is that the supervisors have created a critical staffing shortage, and youth and staff are paying the price. Our hearts go out to the youth's family and to the officers who are devastated by the tragic outcome."
Times staff writer Rebecca Ellis contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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