Carlos Hernandez carries around a worn pack of playing cards to make his job easier. The 30-something mental health counselor works with incarcerated youth at the San Diego County juvenile detention facility where 447 young offenders-roughly 1 percent of the county's under-18 population-are currently housed.
It's Hernandez's job to assess the mental state of detainees. "Some kids won't open up," he explained, dealing a round of blackjack to a 9-year-old who didn't know a hit from a stay. "By the third or fourth hand, most kids tell you their whole life story."
Hernandez spent most of Saturday sitting at a display table set up in juvie's parking lot while some 2,000 parents, teens and kids-there for the facility's annual open house-passed by, part of a massive line that snaked around the lot up to the main entrance. Hernandez and his partner, Rebecca Cardenas, occupied one of more than a dozen information tables, handing out brochures with lists of counseling and support group services available to troubled youth and their parents.
If you lined up around 11 a.m. Saturday-the height of tour-goer turnout-you got, perhaps, an unfortunate demographic profile of what the county's current and future juvenile offenders might look like. The crowd was predominantly Latino, then black, then Asian. Baggy low-riders were the pants of choice and "I'd rather be anywhere but here," the overriding facial expression.
Most of the teens were there because they had to be-because a juvenile-court judge had ordered them to do so, said one probation officer. Most of the kids, or their parents, clutched sign-off sheets to prove that the youngster had not only completed the tour, but had also taken a good, hard look at the information booths that dotted the parking lot.
Other tables were staffed by the Gang Suppression Unit, graffiti-control folks and lots of substance abuse prevention advocates. Some tables presented straight-up information; others, such as a display of gang-affiliation signifiers (shoelaces, belt buckles, hair accessories) and confiscated weaponry, probed youthful curiosity in hopes of getting a point across.
One of the more popular tables allowed kids to put on a pair of-quite literally-beer goggles and then try to follow a straight line that had been painted onto the asphalt. The goggles impaired vision to a point equivalent to having just finished off a six-pack of beer. It was the day's most popular attraction, especially for the under-16 crowd, most of which were forced to clutch the attending officer's arm just to stay upright as they tried to follow the line.
Not all of the young people who showed up had a court order to be there. Some, at the impetus of an accompanying adult, were there to learn a lesson. "Barbara," an African-American woman with a gold-rimmed tooth and a placid demeanor, kept a hawk's-eye watch on four small, precocious yet well-behaved boys with matching buzz cuts. Two of them, she explained, were her foster children, one was her grandchild and the fourth she had guardianship over. At home were nine others-foster children she had taken in and grandkids she had been left with.
"We're here to learn," she smiled, as the boys followed her lead and culled armfuls of pamphlets, business cards and even job applications from the information booths. Some of the information she picked up was to keep, she explained, and some she would take back to her church to be compiled into a resource guide for parents.
Once inside the building, tours (groups of 25 at a time, running in five-minute intervals) went something like this: first stop was one of juvenile hall's 11 cramped courtrooms, which are half the size of adult courtrooms, mostly due to lack of a jury box. "Youth offenders aren't entitled to a jury of their peers," said a court liaison.
Next stop: the stark holding cells, then the actual detention units, a classroom and finally the newly built girls' rehabilitation facility. While males outnumber females four to one, staff said they've seen a slow increase in female transgressors.
Delinquency cases, the court liaison explained, make up about half of the 4,700 annual juvenile court filings. The other half consists of dependency cases-adoption proceedings, child endangerment hearings.
Officer Deborah Olberding, who bore a strong resemblance to Jodie Foster, lead her group of 25-half adults, half kids-out of the courtroom and into its back hallway. She positioned herself in front of the group, closed her eyes for a moment, took a breath and began.
"Anyone under 18 come up to the front, no hats," she bellowed. "Get in line. Let's go."
Noticing the baggy jeans, she instructed the group to pull up their pants and tighten their belts. "We don't sag in juvenile hall," she declared.
For the next hour, Olberding and detention-facility staff did their best to show how dreary life in kiddie prison can be. Parents, likewise, did their best to help them.
"When you feed 'em, do they get seconds?" one father wanted to know.
"They eat whatever you give them, right?" asked a mom who eyed her son wearily.
"Is there snack time?" asked another parent.
"Do they get soda?" asked another.
Meals, the group was informed, are prepared by inmates at the men's county jail. Besides three meals a day, there's one evening snack. Milk and water-no soda-are the only beverages available, and there are no second helpings. Detainees are awakened at 6:45 a.m. They spend the next six hours in school and the rest of their time doing what they're told to do. At night, they get a three-minute shower. Rooms are stark and poorly lit and having roommates is a privilege. Single rooms, said Olberding, "get very lonely."
Though Olberding eventually dropped the tough-guy stance-by the end of the tour, Barbara's four boys treated her like their new best friend-she impressed upon the kids exactly what their beleaguered parents wanted them to hear."Mom and Dad treat you much better than I do," she told them. "You can't cry to me-I don't care."