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Los Angeles County: "Oz Without the Wizard"

Next to employees charged with sexually exploiting, staging gladiator fights and pepper spraying handcuffed children in their custody, the drunks at LA County Probation look like Employees of the Month.
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On a classroom wall of the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall where LA County allegedly mends juvenile offenders, there is a sign that reads, No Reading Newspapers, No Cell Phone Use and No Alcohol Consumption During Class.

It's for the teachers.

In 2000, drunk LA County Probation employees prompted the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) to devote an entire provision of its 2004 corrective Memorandum of Agreement to "ensure that staff at the Probation Camps do not maintain or consume alcohol at the Camps."

Six years later, soused staff aren't even Probation's worst symptom of systemic failure. Next to employees charged with sexually exploiting, staging gladiator fights and pepper spraying handcuffed children in their custody, the drunks look like Employees of the Month.

Which may be why DOJ also included a paragraph on "Threats and Intimidation" to ensure that "staff at Probation Camps do not threaten or intimidate youth who report abuse or mistreatment."

As an attorney who has represented some of Probation's many good employees, I know that the County also fails to protect the dedicated guards, teachers and other staff who have endured retaliation for reporting abusive colleagues.

Probation's worst failures, however, concern the troubled youth under its "care." The department's 70% recidivism rate, which experts estimate for the most serious cases, is testament to an abysmal return on 630 million in tax dollars. But our outrage should be reserved for the dangers children in County custody face. For example, gangs inexcusably operate in Probation's Halls and Camps, threatening and harming detainees. Mahlon, a young teen with no gang ties before his Probation custody, was forced by gang members from his neighborhood to join while all were in Probation custody some years ago. When Mahlon refused their commands after his release, the gang killed his baby brother Trevon in retaliation.

We can only hope Probation did not send its customary bill to Mahlon's grandparents for the cost of his "treatment."

That this same travesty could happen again tomorrow is not the only reason for far more aggressive and sustained federal intervention. Because of entrenched failures by County professionals in mental health, child services and probation to operate as integrated teams that prioritize health and safety, in July 2010, a child with an infected tooth died from the infection while bureaucrats squabbled over jurisdiction.

After a decade of tepid federal prodding, multiple civil rights lawsuits, muzzled warnings from the Children's Commission, repeated whistleblower actions, dozens of unheeded Board resolutions and a spate of embarrassing news articles, Probation's malpractice continues to result in children committing suicide, detainees being jumped into gangs, illiterate youth receiving 'diplomas,' gangs operating in County facilities, mentally ill children going untreated and youth circling directly into adult prison. As County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas recently revealed, Probation even fails to feed them meals that meet minimal state nutrition requirements.

In August 2010, new leadership at Probation released an impressive if disturbing assessment of department dysfunction: from a lack of hiring standards to no effective discipline, no understood mission, no data systems, managers without authority, staff unsuitability for delinquent populations, corrupt promotions, and work rules that maximize staff convenience but damage operations. It is a damning indictment that urges the Department to get "Back to Basics." However, when new management is forced to demand that staff receive training in "... the expectation of 40 hours of work in a work week," and "understanding the consequences of failing to adhere to policies," we're kidding ourselves that Probation has progressed much beyond the days of reminding employees not to get drunk on the job.

The easier question is "How did it get this bad?" That's clear: few professional standards; no federal regulation or performance benchmarks for probation; bad training; inadequate discipline; refusal to collect data, conduct assessments or evaluate; too many kids locked up; poor families' inability to demand results; the department is organized to serve staff needs at the expense of the kids and the rehabilitation mission; insufficient cooperation with other departments; inequitable allocation of public safety resources; inexpert and intense political micro-mismanagement at the County Board of Supervisors level; counter-productive funding mandates; an entitlement ethos that undermines professional thinking; and a culture that shields incompetence and shuns excellence. In the early 1980s, competent and hardworking Probation employees blew the whistle on their hard drinking colleagues who had become camp guards to get "paid a lot to do nothing." The County backed the laggards and allowed retaliation against the whistleblowers. It didn't take long for a gravy train ethos to corrupt Probation's mission or for County insularity and Counsel to bury it.