L.A. County must move nearly 300 youths out of juvenile halls

?url=https%3A%2F%2Fcalifornia times brightspot.s3.amazonaws.com%2Fzbk%2Fdamlat images%2FLA%2FLA PHOTO SELECTS%2F2019 02%2F3072908 ME SYLMAR JUVENILE HALL KKN 16608

State regulators voted Tuesday to find Los Angeles County’s troubled juvenile halls “unsuitable,” an unprecedented decision that will force the county to quickly move nearly 300 youths out of the troubled facilities.

The unanimous vote by the Board of State and Community Corrections gives the county two months to move the youths housed in Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar and Central Juvenile Hall in Boyle Heights out of those facilities.

The move ends a years-long back and forth between the L.A. County Probation Department, which oversees the halls, and the state board, which inspects them.

The board first deemed the halls unsuitable in 2021, a step it had never taken before, but gave probation officials repeated opportunities to come back into compliance with minimum requirements. The board put off a decision to close the halls in April, drawing the ire of youth advocates who said the department had been given far too many second, third and fourth chances.

The board decided Tuesday it was done giving extensions.

“The time has come to take an extraordinarily difficult move,” said board Chair Linda Penner.

State regulators have highlighted numerous problems within the two facilities.

An acute staffing crisis has meant not enough officers working to let youths out of their rooms, much less outside into fresh air. Those same limitations have led to cancellation of family visits, limited or non-existent schooling or even access to therapy — all issues that advocates, staff and juveniles in custody have said lead to additional fights and deteriorating mental health conditions for detainees.

Conditions within the facilities have worsened as violent incidents and overdoses have risen. A teenager was found dead in earlier this month of an apparent overdose — the first time a youth has died at a juvenile hall since 2010, according to a county spokesperson.

Regulators will formally notify the county by Wednesday that it will have 60 days to relocate the roughly 280 youths currently in Probation Department custody. The county said it plans to move them into the currently shuttered Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, which was closed in 2019 amid a reduced population and allegations of abuse by staff.

A team of consultants working for the county had implored the state regulators to give the county 150 days so it could transfer the youths to Los PadrinPadrinos with the “least amount of disruption.”

“This condensed timeline will undoubtedly, undoubtedly contribute to some level of chaos and confusion,” said Margarita Perez, a former assistant chief for the Probation Department, who represented the county in the meeting. “It will also create— and again, it goes without saying — a logistical nightmare for the county.”

The Probation Department was accused last year of conducting a rushed transfer of youths from Central into Nidorf in order to avoid criticism during a pending inspection by state regulators. The chaotic, poorly planned move led to violence, injuries and eventually a rebuke from the L.A. County Office of the Inspector General.

The county consultants struck a deferential tone on Tuesday as they implored regulators to give them more time, while acknowledging Central and Nidorf were unsuitable to house youths. Perez said the department “clearly, clearly, clearly” understood changes were long overdue and acknowledged the county was “asking a lot.”

The board refused, appearing weary of various promises from a rotating cast of Probation Department leaders.

“It is a plan that is way too late,” said board member Kirk Haynes, Fresno County’s chief probation officer.

“Your concerns for the disruption of moving youth are outweighed by our concerns of the disruption they’re living in right now,” said Kelly Vernon, chief probation officer of Tulare County. “Every extension has already been made that possibly can.”

Over the last two years, the state board has repeatedly found the two juvenile hall facilities out of compliance with state regulations. Last month, the county was given yet another chance. After a lengthy meeting where high-up county officials implored the regulators for more time, regulators put off an anticipated vote on a shut down, citing the county’s good-faith effort to course correct. Among other promises, the county said it was reassigning 100 field deputy probation officers to the chronically short-staffed halls.

Inspectors say the promise of rapid reform never came to fruition.

In a memo by top staff of the Board of State and Community Corrections, regulators said they were unable to confirm that 100 deputy probation officers had been reassigned. And staff were still regularly calling out for their shifts, forcing officers already on duty to cover for them and exacerbating the staffing crisis.

Between April 10 and April 28, regulators found 34 staff members who had worked 24-hour shifts at Nidorf. Inspectors found that youths continued to be given little in the way of programming, with many crowded around TVs blaring YouTube. Youths still reported they sometimes urinated in a receptacle in their rooms because no one came to let them out to use the bathroom.

“There is no measurable progress toward compliance being observed,” regulators wrote.

The regulators’ decision to largely shutter the halls came after intense pressure from youth advocate organizations, which accused the board of shirking its legal responsibility and flouting statutory deadlines by consistently giving the county additional time.

In a letter to the board on Monday, attorneys with the Youth Law Center and the Peace and Justice Law Center said they would sue if it did not vote to find the halls unsuitable.

The vote will not lead to a complete shutdown of Nidorf. The 83 youths housed in its Secure Youth Track Facility, who have been accused of more serious and violent crimes, will remain there. The state board does not have authority over these secure facilities, which were created as something of a replacement for the state Division of Juvenile Justice after it is shut down at the end of next month.

The 18-year-old found dead of an apparent overdose was housed in Nidorf’s secure facility, nicknamed “the Compound.” Two sources told The Times the teenager had been dead for hours before officers found him, despite mandatory overnight safety checks.

At least two other youths who had been transferred to Nidorf’s secure track facility from state custody also overdosed earlier this year, according to court records reviewed by The Times and reports from the Office of the Inspector General. Youths have been able to obtain fentanyl-laced percocet inside the secure unit, according to the reports.

The state regulatory board’s oversight power could soon be expanded to include authority over Secure Youth Treatment Facilities statewide. Penner, head of the board, said Gov. Gavin Newsom has recommended the shift as part of the budget process.

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