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Better workers key to fixing Cook County Juvenile Center

Submitted on Wed, 03/14/2007 – 21:28.
Story by Juanita Santiago

Yolanda Mosley, a 41-year-old mother of eight, will never forget the time her son was sent to “juve” after he was arrested for selling drugs at his South Side high school.

Alonzo Mosley, 16 at the time, spent a month in 2004 at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center after being arrested for possession of cocaine. Later, both Alonzo and his mother said, laboratory results proved it was not cocaine, so his case was dropped.

“My son was never abused, but he complained to me how the people up in there treated him,” said the Roseland resident.

Mosley said she heard staff counselors verbally abusing some of the youth while visiting her son.

“Most of the staff treated the kids like shit. I think that no matter what these kids did to deserve to be in the center, the staff should still treat a human like a human,” Mosley said.

Cook County Board president Todd Stroger said during his campaign last fall that the center needed to be reformed, though he has not specified his plan of action. He was unavailable for comment despite repeated calls.

Experts say Cook County must value qualified staffing and adopt the standards of other well-regarded centers, or little will change at the troubled facility, currently being monitored under a 2002 court order. The facility is one of several juvenile under scrutiny nationwide, but experts say Cook County faces more challenges because of years of patronage hiring.

“Solutions for the center involve better training and supervision from the top to the bottom,” said Benjamin Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

In 1999, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against the center on behalf of detained residents alleging abuse by staff members.

The court has ordered county officials to follow the independent expert’s “Modified Implementation Plan.”

David Roush, a nationally recognized expert of juvenile detention centers, is one of four experts on the panel. Roush said a good detention center must be safe and secure; it must have an adequate amount of trained staff; and there must be good programs.

“It’s really not a complicated issue,” said Roush, a professor of juvenile justice at Michigan State University.

Experts agree that qualified staffing is critical.

Alonzo Mosley, now 18, remembers some staff members banging on his door at the center to wake him in the morning, then cussing at him to hurry up and get dress. And during recreation time, he said some staff members would taunt him in front of his “boys,” because they didn’t have anything better to do.

“You don’t get treated right in there. They treated me bad,” he said.

A report released last year after the John Howard Association of Illinois visited the center found too few workers. The 290 staff members, the report concluded, left the center short by about 22.9 percent. The report also found there were only 12 supervisors – a shortfall of 50 percent – at the center, which houses about 450 residents ages 11 to 16.

“The shortage is a critical problem,” said Malcolm Young, the associations’ executive director. The non-profit provides oversight of the state’s prisons, jails and juvenile correctional facilities. He said part of the solution is simply having an adequate amount of staff qualified and motivated to work with youth.

“Why are not changes being made has nothing to do with the youth in the facility. It seems to me the difficulty lies elsewhere,” said Roush, pointing the blame at Cook County politics.

In August 2006, Cook County interim President Bobbie Steele replaced the superintendent at the center with J.W. Fairman Jr. and made other management changes. Some critics say this wasn’t enough.

“The [County] has done several positive changes, but that does not change the fact that the facility is a dysfunctional environment. Too many people are not concerned with the best interest of the youth,” said Earl Dunlap, executive director of the National Juvenile Detention Association, based in Richmond, Ky.

Dunlap said the Cook County facility is probably the worst in the country. The key to a successful center, he said, is skilled leadership with the expertise needed to do their job.

Look, he said at what’s being done in the DuPage Juvenile Detention Center: “It’s a good example of a well-operated center.”

At the DuPage center, all of the employees have a bachelor’s degree, while the superintendent has a doctorate, a stark contrast to the Cook County center, which does not require a college degree of its staff that work directly with the youth, said Pat Connell, who works in the juvenile section of the John Howard Association of Illinois.

She said staff are far more likely to have good interactions with residents if they have the educational background to work with youth, which is the case for staff at DuPage.

“They come to the job with a higher level of education, and they understand what’s going on in a child’s development,” Connell said.

Although the DuPage center houses about 80 residents, its small size is not the main reason it is successful, she said.

It’s the programming that makes the difference, Connell said. All residents participate in several of the 21 staff-facilitated groups, which include anger management, forgiveness and healing, substance abuse education, restorative justice, and sessions on the consequences and results of criminal activity.

“Kids are doing far more than sitting around and doing time.”

When Alonzo Mosley was at the Cook County Juvenile Center, he said all he did was watch TV and play cards.

Several other jurisdictions, including Sangamon County in Illinois and Lucas County in Ohio, have adopted the DuPage model. Dunlap, of the national juvenile association, said successful centers do well because they employ qualified staff.

Still, some who have worked within the Cook County center say it takes more than good programming and qualified staff.

“The kids need a lot of love, and the center is not designed to fix broken lives; it’s just a holding place,” said Arthur Killingsworth, a chaplain with the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry who ministers to youth at the center.

Yolanda Mosley said she has been disappointed with the people working at the Cook County center, but she voted for Todd Stroger with hopes that he’ll be the agent of change.

“I’m gonna have faith that he’ll do the right thing and make it work.”

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