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Criminal Justice

135 Kids Were Hastily Moved From One Juvenile Hall to Another. Staff Say It’s 'A Mess'

Buildings viewed from above are laid out in aa modified triange, with the top right side angled. inside the rectangle is a grassy law. A pool of water is visible near the top middle.
An aerial view of Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall
(Courtesy Google Earth)
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Over the course of a weekend last month, the Los Angeles County Probation Department transferred all 135 children held at Central Juvenile Hall so state inspectors could assess the building. The youths were taken to Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, almost doubling that facility's population.

That transfer hasn’t gone smoothly, according to three sources who work with children at Nidorf.

The sources say while the building can absorb more children in terms of physical capacity, there aren’t enough staff to provide adequate education or health care.

Two sources said Probation Department employees working at Nidorf have been calling out more frequently. And that means it’s harder to move the youths around the facility — so kids haven’t been getting their regular outdoor recreation time, there are fewer guest speakers, and the youths aren't getting adequate education or medical care.

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That affects everything from the basics, like not being able to get fingernails cut, to not having regular access to counselors and mental health care. One staffer said kids are not getting their medication for depression or anxiety in a timely way.

“Barry J. honestly is a mess,” said that staff member, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The staff member said the transfer has resulted in an increase in behavioral issues. “The way our kids deal with stuff, change and anxiety and whatnot a lot of times is by acting out,” they said. “And there's been vandalism, there's been stuff broken, there's been fights.”

The Probation Department said in an emailed statement that it has not received any reports regarding a disruption of health care services — including mental health care — or the dispensing of medication. It did acknowledge that violence has disrupted schooling and recreation time.

Violence Due To 'Gang And Racial Tension'

The staffer told us that in the three weeks since the transfer, the children assigned to the main school on campus only received classroom instruction for two days. On the other days they were just given packets with worksheets.

According to this source, school was canceled last Thursday and Friday, as well as Monday, because of staffing shortages — there weren’t enough people from Probation to move the kids to the school building. And education employees have been crammed into offices, resulting in some sharing desks.

Probation acknowledged that it has “held the youth back from attending school in person,” blaming the decision on “instability” resulting from “several” incidents of violence due to “gang and racial tension.” The department also blamed “recent behavioral disturbances” for the suspension of some recreation time. It said groups of youths have been taken outside “on a case by case basis.”

Probation said County Office of Education counselors are available.

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There’s kids that have said they’ve been trying to call me, their attorney, and haven’t been able to have access to me.
— Jerod Gunsberg, lawyer for some of the transferred youth

Two sources who work at Nidorf told us staff were only notified the day before the transfer, and that Probation cited unresolved problems at the hall as the reason for the closure.

All three sources told us the transfer has been incredibly hard on the kids. Their routines have been totally disrupted; some of them are spending a lot of time just sitting around in the facility’s day room.

Limited Access To Attorneys

Attorney Jerod Gunsberg, who represents some of the youths who were transferred, said it’s been more difficult to talk to his clients by phone. “There’s kids that have said they’ve been trying to call me, their attorney, and haven’t been able to have access to me,” he said.

Probation said it’s been “trying to manage … a high volume of calls.”

Gunsberg and Nidorf staff also talked about violence. They said there have been large fights in the housing units, and multiple suspensions from school even in just the two days of classroom time, which Gunsberg and other sources attribute to kids struggling to cope with this big change.

Gunsberg said all of that can affect a kid’s case in court.

“All this stuff goes into the court file,” he said. “So if there's a fight, if a kid gets hit by another kid, because there's not enough staff, and the kid has to defend themselves, and all of a sudden, that goes against them.”

barbed wire Barry J Nidorf
Barbed wire on the fence enclosing Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall
(Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)

Visiting Hours Suspended

Our sources told us visiting hours for families were canceled several times in the past few weeks because of either lockdowns at the juvenile hall or staffing shortages.

I went to Nidorf on Sunday during regular visiting hours, but the security guard said visitation had been suspended again over the weekend because of staffing shortages.

The guard gave me the number for the Probation officer at the front desk to get a further explanation, but the officer had no other information, and forwarded my calls to the facility’s family resource center, where they all went to voicemail.

Probation said it canceled visitations over the weekend “due to several behavioral disturbances,” again citing “gang and racial tension among the youth.” It said “virtual visits and phone calls are still occurring almost daily.”

The way our kids deal with stuff, change and anxiety and whatnot a lot of times is by acting out. And there's been vandalism, there's been stuff broken, there's been fights.
— A staffer at the Barry J. Nidorf facility.

Last Thursday, Nidorf failed an inspection by investigators with the Board of State and Community Corrections because they found that kids were being kept in isolation for too long. The Los Angeles Times first reported the news on Friday.

“They still had some issues with room confinement by not consistently meeting their self-imposed one-hour time limit during shift changes,” Board spokesperson Tracie Cone told us in an email.

She said the board acknowledged that the facility was “dealing with the increased population from Central and appear to be making strides toward compliance.”

A Troubled History

L.A. County’s juvenile halls have been under fire in recent years for failing to comply with state safety mandates.

In January, we reported that an imposter posing as a medical professional had gained access to Nidorf and took COVID-19 "'swabs'" from youths there, according to the L.A. County Public Defender’s office and the Probation Department.

Last September, the oversight board determined thatthe county’s juvenile halls were “not suitable” to house minors, and gave the county 60 days to improve conditions. In November, the board said the facilities were again acceptable, but expressed concern with the length of time kids were locked in their units.

The board meets this Thursday. If it finds Nidorf unsuitable for habitation, then Probation would have 60 days to fix the problems or move the kids to another facility.

In a separate email responding to the concerns raised by our sources about Nidorf, spokesperson Cone said, “We are aware of things being chaotic, but we are presently narrowly focused on the corrective action plan and this Thursday’s Board meeting where it will be addressed." She also said her agency "will be conducting a full inspection of all of L.A.’s facilities in the near future.”

In 2018, the California Department of Justice launched an investigation into L.A. County’s two juvenile halls and found the county “provided insufficient services and endangered youth safety,” citing an excessive use of pepper spray as one issue. The county later decided to phase out the use of pepper spray in juvenile facilities.

Last January,former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced a settlement with L.A. County to improve conditions in the juvenile halls.

The situation is more dire at Central Juvenile Hall. On March 15, the County Board of Supervisors approved a motion to instruct the Probation Department and other county agencies to report back within 120 days with a timeline and cost for the closure and demolition of the facility.

“After recent inspections of Central Juvenile Hall, the state made it very clear that it is, plain and simple, unfit for young people,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said in a statement after the vote.

What questions do you have about criminal justice in Southern California? 
Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.