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State orders shutdown of LA County’s two largest juvenile facilities

Board members declared both Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, open for less than a year, and the Barry J. Nidorf Secure Youth Treatment Facility to be “unsuitable” to continue housing youths

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 — A state regulatory board has ordered Los Angeles County to shut down its two largest juvenile facilities in the next 60 days over substandard conditions, setting the stage for a potential nightmare scenario where the county will have hundreds of youth in its custody and nowhere locally to hold them.

Officials from the Los Angeles County Probation Department pleaded with the Board of State and Community Corrections, the regulatory agency that oversees prisons and juvenile halls in California, during a hearing Thursday, Feb. 15, to delay the decision and instead create a partnership in which the BSCC would participate in a joint “reconstruction strike team” designed to finally fix the county’s long-troubled juvenile hall system.

But the board, fed up with L.A. County’s repeated appearances before them over the past three years, was not swayed. Board members declared both Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, open for less than a year, and the Barry J. Nidorf Secure Youth Treatment Facility in Sylmar to be “unsuitable” to continue housing youths.

Such a determination starts a 60-day clock, in which the county must either bring the facilities up to the state’s minimum standards or close indefinitely.

It’s the exact same position the county found itself in last year, when the BSCC ordered the closures of Central and Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Halls, minus the SYTF unit, over similar concerns. The county, in response, scrambled to renovate and reopen Los Padrinos, previously closed in 2019, as a new home for the juveniles before the deadline elapsed in July.

This time, however, Los Angeles County does not have another Los Padrinos to fall back on, and its various juvenile camps are too small to hold more than a fraction of the youth at Los Padrinos today. The Probation Department did not respond to questions about what it will do in the event that Los Padrinos can’t be fixed in time.

Los Angeles County, through a spokesperson, said the BSCC’s decision “places the county in the position of continuing to triage rather than to press forward with the reforms underway to achieve lasting change.”

“We intend to use the 60-day regulatory window to take all necessary steps to meet the state’s requirements,” the statement read. “We had hoped to have the BSCC’s agreement on a joint strike force that could provide clarity around goals and how outcomes are measured. Though that request was rejected, we will continue to push the Probation Department to use every tool at its disposal to avoid closure, which we believe will only make the current situation more challenging for our youth in detention.”

Sean Garcia-Leys, co-executive director of the Peace and Justice Law Center and a member of Los Angeles County’s Probation Oversight Commission, said the county must find ways to reduce the population at Los Padrinos to a more manageable level if it wants to avoid a shutdown.

That could include a combination of sending some youth to juvenile halls in neighboring counties — preferably to Orange County, which is still close enough for families to visit — and placing others under electronic monitoring, he said. Garcia-Leys, who recently inspected Los Padrinos in the last week, estimates the juvenile hall would need to drop to about 100 to 150 youth — about half of where it is now — to stabilize at its current staffing levels.

Los Angeles County continues to struggle with an abundance of staff call-outs and medical leaves at its juvenile facilities, with county officials estimating about 1,400 employees — about a third of the department’s total — are currently on leave. The department has taken more than 500 disciplinary actions since October 2022 against staff who excessively called off, or did not show up for shifts, but the problem persists.

In August, state inspections found that the county simply did not have enough staff showing up for work to provide the safety and services required by state law.

Inspectors determined that Los Padrinos, home to nearly 300 youth awaiting court appearances, did not properly train staff on uses of force, consistently failed to get youth to school on time and did not offer sufficient recreation, with some youth instead sitting in front of a TV, watching movies or playing video games, from when they woke up until they went to bed.

Youth have complained of having nothing to do during the day and having to urinate in their rooms overnight, because of the lack of staff.

Los Padrinos has experienced two violent escape attempts since it opened in the summer of 203. Last month, eight officers were placed on leave for allegedly running what critics have dubbed a “fight club” inside the juvenile hall.

Similar conditions, though not as severe, were found at Barry J. Nidorf, a secure facility that houses about 50 youth already sentenced and returned to the county’s custody following the dissolution of the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice in 2021. In May, an 18-year-old died from a suspected overdose in the SYTF and was not found until hours later, despite state law requiring safety checks every 15 minutes.

Los Angeles County submitted a “corrective action plan” in October outlining how it would address the deficiencies. It subsequently declared the work complete in January. But when the state’s inspectors went into the facilities later that month, they found the department had not made enough progress.

Stakeholders and decision-makers pointed fingers at each other before and after the BSCC’s decision.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis called for the unions representing the department’s employees to “steer away” from supporting problematic employees and to work with the supervisors and the Probation Department’s new leadership to “implement a plan toward progress and compliance.”

“The cycle of Probation juvenile facilities continuing to be in and out of compliance and being found unsuitable needs to end,” she said in a statement. “I recognize that this is a long and deep-seated issue directly connected to staff, who have long-held leadership positions, who have abused their authority, turned a blind eye, and who 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.”

Meanwhile, both youth advocates and probation officers speaking at the meeting criticized the Board of Supervisors for inaction. Advocates say the supervisors have not followed through with a proposal called “Youth Justice Reimagined” that would have placed youths in more home-like, healing centers, instead of in juvenile halls. Probation employees pointed to hiring freezes as the reason for the staffing woes.

At the meeting, Chief Deputy Kimberly Epps blamed conflicting mandates from the BSCC and the California Department of Justice, which secured a separate court order against Los Angeles County last year, for the juvenile facilities’ failed inspections. Documentation required by the Justice Department did not meet the standards required by the BSCC and created confusion, she said.

While she acknowledged the department’s struggles, Epps suggested both Los Padrinos and the SYTF are actually in compliance, contrary to the inspectors’ findings, and assured the BSCC that the county can now provide the proper documentation to back up that claim.

BSCC members chastised L.A. County for submitting a litany of documents just hours before the suitability hearing began.

Board Chair Linda Penner, a former Fresno County probation chief, said she couldn’t accept the department’s assurances in light of the department’s history.

“It seems to me at the 12th hour, you come in with what you believe is documentation of compliance in many of the areas that we found you out of compliance with,” she said in response. “And I struggle with that, because we’ve been here before.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, in a statement, said the department “made excuses at today’s BSCC meeting instead of owning up to the unacceptable conditions at two of our probation facilities.”

“Multiple probation chiefs have been unable to fix the problems facing the department,” she said. “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.”

If Los Angeles County can prove it is in compliance with state standards, the BSCC can reconvene before the 60-day cutoff and reverse its decision.

Garcia-Leys, the oversight commissioner, said that seems likely for the SYTF, which is smaller and has fewer problems, but it’s less clear for Los Padrinos, the facility where most of the county’s juveniles are housed.

“It seems like it is actually possible and perhaps it could be brought into compliance in a matter of weeks,” he said. “Los Padrinos is much further from being compliant, but not so far that I don’t think it could be done in 60 days, if the population were small enough.”

The necessary solutions will require an “all hands on deck, multi-sector approach” involving the Probation Department, the juvenile courts, the Board of Supervisors and other counties, he said.

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