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Chicago Juvenile Detention Center Workers Resist Court-Ordered Reforms

by John E. Dannenberg

In June 1999, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) won a suit against Chicago?s Cook County to abate unconstitutionally sordid, unsafe and abusive conditions at its Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC), conditions that had been tied to staff improprieties and inaction. But as of June 2006, conditions were still so rife that the overseeing federal court had to issue an Agreed Supplemental Order (ASO) to bring JTDC into compliance within 60 days. In spite of the ASO, the court?s monitor reported that JTDC staff were continuing to resist many of the ordered changes, and asked the court to intervene.

To settle the suit, Cook County agreed in 2002 to correct gross deficiencies in sanitation, maintenance, mental health care, parental interface, student training and even abuse of the children. Failing to comply, JTDC was ordered in the June 2006 ASO to generate a compliance plan of action within 60 days. Brenda Welch (former warden at the Joliet Correctional Center and principal at the DuPage County Children?s Center) was appointed as court monitor. The new plan gave JTDC eight months to comply with the 2002 settlement and the ASO. Separately, the FBI and Illinois Attorney General have begun investigations into possible civil rights violations and accounting fraud at JTDC.

The compliance team of experts has as its goal the elimination of the pervasive climate of violence and chaos at JTDC, where an average of 450 children are detained awaiting trial. The difference between the 2002 settlement to ?design a plan? and the 2006 order to comply is that now benchmarks of performance are levied upon JTDC via the ASO?s Modified Improvement Plan (MIP). Progress reports are due to the court every 30 days. Within 21 days after the June Order, staff members identified with abuse complaints shall be given rigorous training. Pending completion of that, they are to be removed from contact with the children. Importantly, within 75 days after the ASO, JTDC must transfer all aspects of health, dental and mental health services to the Cook County Bureau of Health Services. The court will review progress at the 8-month benchmark. The ASO provides that it will remain in effect until at least March 1, 2009, subject to review again in five years.

However, the response of JTDC to the tough stance taken by the court has been at best tepid. Court monitor Welch reported in July 2006 that workers and administrative officers continued to allow unsafe and unsanitary conditions. In addition, over twelve accused abusers remained on staff without the courtordered training. In her eight-page June 30, 2006 status report, Welch wrote, ?Administrative staff was somewhat defensive regarding present practices and resistive to new ideas.? ?Focus group? sessions were poorly attended by key managers, she added. But the underlying health and treatment of the children detainees, the essence of the court?s angst, remained elusive. ?Basic safety, sanitation and security procedures are not currently enforced. The lack of security creates a dangerous environment for staff and residents.? Welch specifically referred to unlocked doors, absent staff, and toilets clogged with feces. A June 17, 2006 search turned up smoking paraphernalia, pornography, shanks and a large amount of marijuana. Even bullets had been found in a detainee?s clothing a few weeks earlier. And often, medical care was either not conducted or documented. Nonetheless, JTDC Supervisor Jerry Robinson insisted that he had ?complied with all recommendations.? Robinson was likely to lose his job as a result of the ASO, sources said.

The ACLU will continue to bring these discrepancies to the court?s attention and gain whatever further enforcement powers are needed to overcome JTDC staff?s recalcitrance. Between pressure from the monitors, the court, the FBI and the Illinois Attorney General, the sordid history of malfeasance at JTDC should hopefully trend towards constitutional standards. See: Doe v. Cook County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 99-C-3945, Agreed Supplemental Order (2006).

Other sources: Chicago Tribune, Associated Press.

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Related legal case

Doe v. Cook County