Feb. 29 2012 10:37 AM

Juvenile Justice Commission findings include allegations of sexual and physical assault by probation department staff

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A juvenile detainee walks down a corridor at the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility
Courtesy: Susan Lankford, "Born, Not Raised"

San Diego County Probation still isn't talking.

In January, officials in charge of managing the county's juvenile detention facilities rejected interview requests when CityBeat was investigating the agency's failure to report allegations of staff sexual abuse in federal surveys. This month, a new set of inspection reports from the county's Juvenile Justice Commission raises new questions about abuse, education and healthcare, and whether grievances are handled properly in the county's five juvenile lockups. County spokespeople didn't respond to repeated requests for interviews or comment.

“These reports provide a window into juvenile detention and remind us that locking up young people puts them in a potentially dangerous environment, where physical and sexual abuse can and does happen and where their needs may go unmet,” writes Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, the new criminal-justice expert hired by the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, in an email after reviewing the reports. “When youth are detained, it is essential that their voices be heard, whether it's when they feel ill and need to see a doctor or when they complain of mistreatment by peers or staff. Taking incarcerated young people's concerns seriously shows them that they are valued and that supports what we all want— their successful reintegration into the community.”

Here's what we know, according to the 2011 inspection reports:

• Abuse allegations continue:

For the second year in a row, the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility—the county's central juvenile hall, which has an average daily population of 270 detainees, both male and female—disclosed that staff had been accused of sexually abusing detainees. The report doesn't say how many alleged incidents there were or what the investigation outcomes may have been. The document simply included three checked boxes to indicate that there were allegations of sexual assault, inappropriate touching and sexual harassment at the facility.

According to the Kearny Mesa facility's policies for handling sexual abuse, serious allegations are supposed to be referred to the San Diego Police Department for formal investigation. SDPD logged no such referral from the facility, SDPD spokesperson Lt. Andra Brown says.

The inspection team also recommended the Juvenile Ranch Facility, a rural drug-abuse rehabilitation center in Campo housing 130 juveniles, install a video camera system to prevent sexual abuse. Detainees at two other male-only facilities alleged that they were physically assaulted by staff members: the East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility, which has an average daily population of 247, and Camp Barrett, which houses 135 juveniles daily.

• Danger abounds: Although the East Mesa facility reported that critical incidents had been cut by half during the last year, violence between inmates continues to be a problem at juvenile facilities. East Mesa reported an average of two assaults on inmates per month and, on average, 7.5 “serious incidents” (involving more three or more juveniles) per month. The Kearny Mesa facility averaged three detainee-on-detainee assaults per month and nine serious incidents per month.

Escapes are also common at the Juvenile Ranch Facility, with nine successful escapes recorded in 2011, down from 13 in 2010. The inspection team recommended that the facility implement orientation courses that drive home the dangerousness of escaping into the desert.

• Healthcare inconsistencies: Inspectors expressed concern about how minors' medical complaints are being processed at the Kearny Mesa facility. State law requires that only qualified medical personnel triage juveniles; every minor who turns in a sick-call slip is supposed to be checked out. However, JJC inspectors learned that in some cases, probation staff were advising kids to take Tylenol, telling them they would only be seen if the problems persisted.

Inspectors also documented a discrepancy between how the facility handles complaints registered against the medical-service provider. “Of the 28 medical complaints recorded from April to June, 2011, there were no sustained complaints compared with 10 percent for the other facilities,” the report states. The facility recorded 108 complaints against medical staff over the year at Kearny Mesa.

• Education holes: Inspectors indicated that the Camp Barrett facility was not providing enough of its wards with special-education assistance. “Statistics indicate that approximately 70 percent of students entering the judicial justice system suffer from a learning or behavioral disorder, yet less than half of the students in the facilities are on an [individualized education program],” the inspection team writes in its report.

The Juvenile Justice Commission identifies the San Diego County Office of Education as one source of problems—its staff have not been documenting incidents and grievances in a matter consistent with policies in place at Camp Barrett and the Kearny Mesa facility. Inspectors who visited the East Mesa juvenile hall noted that the Office of Education was not sufficiently communicating with minors' schools on the outside.


For a graphic look inside the juvenile-justice system, read this week's profile of Susan Madden Lankford and her new book, Born, Not Raised

Email davem@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.

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