Trending Topics

Why a drug treatment unit for juveniles in L.A. County custody closed just months after opening

The pilot program launched in late 2023, but by early May, youth inside the specialized unit were removed “at their request” and involuntary placements were halted

Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall

Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar on Tuesday, July 19, 2022. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Dean Musgrove/TNS

By Jason Henry
Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County has shut down a much-needed drug addiction treatment unit at a juvenile detention facility in Sylmar over attorneys’ concerns about the involuntary placement of juveniles into the program.

The Substance Use Disorder Unit, championed last year in the wake of a fatal overdose and multiple hospitalizations within the juvenile facilities, was meant to provide “close supervision and intensive programming from counselors” to addicted youth confined specifically within the Barry J. Nidorf Secure Youth Treatment Facility.

The county partnered with the Tarzana Treatment Center on the pilot program in late 2023. But by early May, youth inside the specialized unit were removed “at their request” and involuntary placements were halted until the dispute can be resolved, according to the Probation Department.

“Discussions with the Court are ongoing to ensure proper placement of youth into this specialized unit,” probation officials said in a statement. “Meanwhile, Tarzana Treatment Center continues to have counselors on site daily to provide services for all youth through a variety of treatment options at Barry J. Nidorf SYTF. Providing appropriate rehabilitative care is a top priority for the Probation Department .”

The unit faced almost immediate pushback from defense attorneys, particularly from the Public Defender’s Office, who argued the L.A. County Probation Department used outdated risk assessments conducted in July 2023 to determine who to send into the unit.

Many of the youth transferred to the unit “likely no longer met the criteria for such placement,” according to Liz Braunstein, a deputy public defender in the juvenile division.

A reassessment should have occurred closer to the transfer because treatment needs are fluid, Braunstein said. A team made up of case workers, psychiatrists, counselors, defense and prosecuting attorneys is supposed to meet when those needs change substantially.

“Unfortunately, some youths were moved to the SUD Unit based off a previous year’s list with no additional reassessments conducted or meeting with each youth’s treatment team to ensure that the move would still meet the youth’s needs and rehabilitative goals,” Braunstein said. “In some instances, the move substantially changed the court approved roadmap for treatment and possibly prolonged confinement.”

Youth sent into the unit reportedly considered it overly restrictive and complained they no longer had access to the same activities offered elsewhere in the SYTF. Advocates have previously reported that juveniles who never used drugs before entering the facilities turned to illicit substances to avoid intense boredom caused by not having age-appropriate programming and entertainment.

Though the Public Defender’s Office opposed the placement process, the agency still supports the idea behind the unit, according to L.A. County Public Defender Ricardo D. Garcia.

“We all agree that a meaningful substance use disorder program should be available to the youth at all facilities, including Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, and we are grateful to the Board of Supervisors for creating such a program,” Garcia said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the Probation Department and the rest of our partners to meet the substance use disorder treatment needs of our youth and developing evidence-based programming, educational opportunities, and job training in hopes of preventing substance use disorder issues from developing while in confinement.”

The Probation Department declined to say how many juveniles were placed in the unit or if any remain today. A spokesperson stated the unit is “open for youth willing to voluntarily participate in intensive SUD counseling and treatment.”

The statement seemingly contradicted Probation Chief Guillermo Viera Rosa, who, while speaking at the Board of Supervisors’ meeting on Tuesday, May 14 , stated the department is no longer “able to have the substance use disorder unit” and that he believed “an error was made” in shutting it down.

“Maybe the next run at it will take into consideration what the court has told us and the public defender,” Viera Rosa said. “What I know for certain is that we will have a space where young people that are in the throes of drug addiction can be treated.”

The department did not respond to a request for clarification.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, one of the driving forces behind creation of the unit, expressed her disappointment about the shutdown during the same meeting, saying she was disheartened because the unit was created in response to “so many overdoses.”

During a visit, one juvenile begged Barger to “put him some place so that he wouldn’t use,” she said.

The Barry J. Nidorf Secure Youth Treatment Facility in Sylmar houses roughly 60 youth adjudicated for the most serious of crimes and committed into the county’s custody as a result of the dissolution of the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice in 2021. By comparison, Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, the county’s largest facility, has about 300 predisposition detainees awaiting court decisions.

Last year, the SYTF, amid a dire staffing crisis in the Probation Department, became a hotbed for drug use. Emails obtained through a public records request described a “state of emergency” inside the facility, with one credible messenger warning probation’s leadership in March 2023 that “someone will die unless you take immediate and extreme action.”

Scott Budnick, founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, wrote in the March 2023 email to then-Probation Chief Karen Fletcher that he witnessed a group of youth “smoking and playing video games 5 deep in one room — away from cameras” and another six smoking marijuana in a circle in the bathroom. He described “the amount of pills and marijuana and phones in the unit” as astounding.

“Unit X is in a state of emergency, and no one is present or doing anything about it,” he said. “Someone will die soon.”

Around the same time, the Los Angeles County Office of Inspector General reported that lax security had enabled an influx of contraband through fake delivery drivers, drones and packages chucked over the walls.

Less than two months after Budnick’s email, 18-year-old Bryan Diaz died from a fentanyl overdose inside Barry J. Nidorf. At least six others were hospitalized before the end of the year. State regulators, incensed over the poor conditions at the SYTF and at Los Padrinos, nearly shuttered both facilities.

The department has cracked down since the overdoses by intensifying security checkpoints, increasing K9 and room searches, and adding patrols along the facilities’ perimeters. Multiple probation officers have been placed on leave for attempting to bring contraband into juvenile facilities since January.

In the video below, Gordon Graham discusses the isolation of juvenile offenders and the importance of having a solid policy to guide correctional efforts.

©2024 MediaNews Group, Inc.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.