Juvenile detention staffers face crackdown JUVENILE CENTER | Troublesome staffers face crackdown amid death threats, abuses
Saturday, July 04, 2009
by Lisa Donovan
Death threats, vandalism and unrest are expected to climb along with
the mercury this summer at Cook County's juvenile detention center.
And that's just among the staff.
Tensions have simmered to a full boil as Cook County Juvenile
Temporary Detention Center bosses crack down on employee abuse of sick
time and family leave -- and investigate employee abuse of the 10- to
"I anticipate this summer is going to be a very rocky time for the
JTDC," Earl Dunlap, head of the detention center, told Cook County
commissioners at a May meeting. "There have already been some people
who have set an agenda to get some people and have done some damage to
some vehicles and made some other personal threats, including some
death threats that I received."
Dunlap, appointed to his position by a federal judge, said the FBI
is investigating a handwritten death threat that was slid under the
door of his office at the center at 1100 S. Hamilton.
In other instances, employees are suspected of slashing tires and
smashing windows of fellow employees' cars in apparent retaliation for
turning them in for job performance problems, Dunlap told the Chicago
Sun-Times in recent weeks.
These are the same employees charged with the day-to-day supervision
of troubled children awaiting trial, sentencing or transfer to a
A spokesman for Teamsters Union Local 714, which represents the workers, did not return calls for comment.
"It's supposed to be a holding area for kids until they get
services, and they go to [a youth prison] or they go home on probation.
I would never expect employees, of any government body, to be acting
like thugs," said Cook County Public Guardian Robert F. Harris, who
oversees 7,000 wards of the state -- some of whom pass through the JTDC.
A decade ago, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in
federal court for improved inmate conditions -- better food, better
health care -- and today's higher staffing standards at the center are
the result of either court orders or Dunlap.
For years, insiders say, the JTDC was a warehouse for patronage
hires -- not experts in dealing with children winding their way through
the juvenile court system.
"There are some people -- not all -- who depend on that place not
working very well so they can have jobs and not work very hard," said
ACLU attorney Benjamin Wolf.
While a core of JTDC veteran staff and a series of new hires are
changing the working environment, a small group of "bad apples" are
making life difficult at the center, Dunlap said.
He sees the backlash as part of a larger cultural shift at the detention center, which has an annual budget of $40 million.
In recent years, governance of the 500-bed facility changed from the
County Board president to Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Tim
Evans after a change in state law.
One of the new requirements for holding a job in the Circuit Court
system is a college diploma. Currently, 70 percent of the 500 staff
members don't have a degree, Dunlap said.
That, coupled with stricter enforcement of work rules, has left some employees feeling under siege.
"A lot of them face layoffs, but a lot of them can't behave themselves," Dunlap told the Sun-Times.
Employees have been accused of smuggling cell phones, cigarettes and
dope to the inmates, Dunlap said. He also alleges that some staff have
gotten back at a mouthy inmate by having another juvenile detainee
attack the child.
And some detention center staffers have been accused of attacking inmates themselves.
In 2008, 113 abuse investigations were launched. The majority involved physical abuse. About 12 percent were substantiated.
So far in 2009, about 55 such investigations are under way.
In addition, the FBI and the Cook County state's attorney's office
are conducting separate investigations into employee "time theft,''
"We'll get a substantial number of 'call offs' from work, which
results in having to lock the kids up because there's no staff there,''
Dunlap said. The kids are locked in their individual rooms.
Between 47 percent and 50 percent of workers call off on Sundays, 43
percent on Saturdays and around 35 percent on Fridays, he said.
Dunlap blames lax former bosses for the problems with some staff,
but stresses that there is a core of veterans who work well with the
children, and new hires, too, who are changing how the JTDC does
As bad as it's going to get now, "it will get better," he said.
"What's at stake is the welfare of the kids in this facility. ... If
we're going to have any impact whatsoever, we have to at a minimum ...
have good people in this environment," Dunlap said.