August 22, 2007


Visitors to Juvenile Hall Feel Stuck Too

By Susannah Rosenblatt  |  The Los Angeles Times  —

On a typical Sunday morning in an industrial patch of the northern San Fernando Valley, a couple of dozen mothers and fathers huddle together a few hours after sunrise.

Armed with camp chairs, snacks and magazines, the early-bird crowd, eager to visit their sons and daughters at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, must hurry up and wait. Visiting hours don’t begin until 1 p.m., but regulars know that a better spot in line means more time inside. Those whose youngsters have been incarcerated for months on end murmur greetings to familiar faces.

By the time they set foot in the 28-acre compound of brick buildings, these relatives will have spent hours outdoors, baking in the heat or soaking in the occasional rain. They’ll have complied with a strict dress code that bans sandals and shorts and will have undergone screenings for weapons and drugs.

The crowd is mostly moms and dads, because other relatives need court or Probation Department permission to visit.

To many parents and juvenile-justice experts, the weekly anxiety-fraught ritual is emblematic of persistent problems with the Los Angeles County system charged with overseeing thousands of young offenders. The juvenile halls are now under federal orders to reform.

County Probation Department officials, although acknowledging shortcomings, say they are hamstrung by crowded conditions — there is no space for a waiting room at Nidorf — staff shortages and pressing security concerns.

“Let’s face it: It’s not pleasant,” Chief Probation Officer Robert Taylor said. “It’s a jail, basically.”

Operating one of the largest juvenile detention systems in the nation, county probation officials supervise about 4,000 teenagers housed in three juvenile halls and 19 camps.

The average stay at the halls is about three weeks, although more serious youth offenders typically remain much longer while their cases move through adult court.

The department has labored to fix dozens of problems, including improving mental health care and reducing officers’ use of force against youngsters, as mandated by Justice Department officials in 2004.

Federal regulators are in the process of evaluating the camps, and the department faces a chronic staffing shortage throughout its facilities.

California tends to incarcerate youth offenders more like adults, with an emphasis on confinement, not rehabilitation, said David Roush, a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice who has assessed hundreds of juvenile justice facilities across the country.

Roush and others also say juvenile justice systems across the nation tend to regard parents as part of the problem instead of seeing them as partners in the effort to turn around young offenders.

Sue Burrell, a staff attorney with the Youth Law Center, said parents complain that they “have to jump through a huge number of hoops to get to visit their children. It just seems like the families are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”

Probation officials acknowledge that the clumped line of 100-plus relatives — including elderly grandparents, fathers in wheelchairs and babies in strollers — waiting outside Nidorf on any given Sunday is not ideal.

Similar conditions confront visitors at the other two juvenile halls, one east of downtown Los Angeles and the other in Downey.

Officials have said they hope to take steps to shelter visitors from the weather.

Although visiting hours are from 1 to 4 p.m., a short-handed probation staff must frequently shoo parents out early, sometimes after just an hour, to make room for other visitors.

“There’s not enough room inside to accommodate all the parents who want to see their children,” Taylor said, adding that, without the necessary space or staffing for a waiting area, “where else are we going to put them?”

“It’s very uncomfortable,” said Marco Lopez, 51, of Maywood, resting in a wheelchair parked in a cool spot at Nidorf one Sunday while his 8-year-old daughter, Sulema, skipped rope. “There’s no space where we can gather.”

To some parents, even more infuriating than the outdoor wait is the mandatory drug screening, which uses a device called a Vapor Tracer that can detect various narcotics on a person’s thumb or fingers.

The machine registers whether someone has touched marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine or heroin — but not whether they have used the drugs — and it is aimed at blocking contraband from the facilities.

People who test positive are screened again. If the testing system produces another positive result, parents are not searched or detained but are turned away.

Although the department keeps statistics on the number of positive drug tests, it does not have the resources to keep records of individuals who test positive, nor does it report them to law enforcement, said Virginia Snapp, the probation department’s deputy director of juvenile institutions division.

“Our job is to run this institution, not chase after the community,” Snapp said. “It’s a tightrope that we walk. I don’t want the parents to . . . be scared away and stay away. That’s why we don’t have the Sheriff’s Department here hauling them away.”

About 5% of the 800 or so parents and relatives who visit the county’s three juvenile halls on a typical Sunday are turned away because of positive drug scans, Snapp said.

Smuggling illegal items is easier in the juvenile facilities than in county jails because parents and youngsters aren’t separated by glass partitions, Taylor said. He recounted an incident last spring in which a husband and wife tried to sneak meth tucked inside a toiletry bottle to their incarcerated son.

County probation officials introduced the drug devices this year; plans are in the works to bring drug-sniffing dogs to the halls and camps, Snapp said.

Such blanket suspicion sends “the wrong message,” said Javier Stauring, the supervising Catholic chaplain at the county’s halls and camps. “That’s offensive to a lot of the parents who do not use drugs,” he said.

The Vapor Tracers, according to probation officials, have generated only a handful of complaints.

Parents also pass through a metal detector and say they are occasionally subjected to pat-down searches, which some mothers complain can be overly aggressive.

“They’re rude to us,” said LaToshia Collins, 35, a medical biller from Palmdale visiting her 17-year-old son being held on weapons charges. Collins, first in line one recent Sunday, arrived at Nidorf at 6:45 a.m. equipped with nail polish and a portable DVD player to pass the time in line. “They act like we’re criminals.”

Visitors are barred from carrying anything inside besides two of their own keys and an ID, and the prohibition on sandals occasionally makes it necessary for them to borrow strangers’ shoes.

Although other Southern California counties enforce dress restrictions and use metal detectors, Los Angeles is the only one in the region to screen visitors for drugs.

San Diego and Ventura counties hold visiting hours two days a week and, like San Bernardino County, offer lockers to stash belongings not allowed inside, unlike Los Angeles County.

“Generally speaking, visitation is understaffed — as a result, it’s very slow, very cumbersome, very tedious, very user-unfriendly,” said Roush, the criminal justice professor, about juvenile justice systems around the country.

Many parents would agree.

“It’s almost like they don’t see our kids as being human — they don’t see us as families,” said Rachel Veerman, 43, an administrative analyst at UCLA whose son was in juvenile hall for 11 months. She recalled a probation officer requiring her to throw out the three tissues she’d brought with her when she arrived at Nidorf one Sunday with a cold.

Probation officials disagree with Roush’s assessment. “I think we’re very accommodating, frankly, as best as we can be and maintain our safety and security,” Snapp said. “We definitely feel that parents are a key player in all of this, from the beginning to the end.”

Although acknowledging the role parents play in adolescent offenders’ lives, Taylor said the juvenile population has toughened over the years.

The strained atmosphere has pushed the strangers waiting together outside Nidorf into a unique community.

Parents of teens facing more serious charges banded together this summer to organize a Parent Teacher Assn., one of just a handful of such groups in facilities for juvenile offenders.

They meet once a month on Sundays at Nidorf to share lunch and learn more about their sons’ and daughters’ mental health, education inside the halls and how they can better navigate the system, said Sophia Waugh, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Education. She also works with the California PTA and helped form the group.

The group offers a forum for parents “to share what their concerns are, to help them understand what they should be doing,” Waugh said.

Bell bus operator Yamileth Fuentes, whose 17-year-old son has been at Nidorf since February 2006 on murder charges, said she feels helpless at times.

“It’s a very hard situation,” Fuentes said. “It’s like my life is going away with him.”

Beyond their fledgling advocacy, these parents have found support in one another: They break the tension of their circumstances with jokes, hugs and empathy over shared sorrow.

“We gossip; we’re friends,” said Griselda Sillas, 56, a cook from South-Central Los Angeles.

“We’re almost a family. Here we tell our stories, console each other.”