Illinois juvenile jails woefully under staffed, report says

According to a report released Thursday, July 28, by the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, the state’s eight juvenile detention centers have “serious deficiencies” when it comes to treating some of Illinois’ most troubled youth.

“Often there is no assessment or an inadequate assessment of youth mental needs,” said Edward Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators to the Daily Herald.

Loughran one of the study’s leaders added, “We saw a real shortage of well-trained behavioral health staff skilled in identifying and helping with behavioral health problems in the facilities.”

Loughran added what’s needed is staff at these centers to able to develop relationships with youth that is therapeutic and positive.

The study was in response to two youth suicides while being detained in 2008 and 2009. It was carried out by the Models for Change Initiative, a multi-state juvenile justice systems reform effort funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

Seven experts from around the country led the report based on one-day visits to the state’s eight facilities and interviews with employees and youths.

They note there are problems from the moment a youth walks in the “jailhouse door” until well after he/she walks out in the way Illinois treats juvenile offenders.

The centers are not adequately screening and treating mentally ill youth, the report finds. Of those in custody 70 percent of kids have mental health needs, according to the study. And more up-to-date tools are needed. For instance, mental health workers used suicide risk methods and substance abuse surveys developed for adults rather than adolescents and some date back 15-20 years.

Experts contend a counselor’s caseload of about 66 youths is way too large to provide effective treatment, and Illinois doesn’t generally involve families in treatment plans until release from custody is imminent.

The recidivism rate for juvenile offenders remains high as a result – 35 percent of those released from the centers end up back in custody or in an adult prison within one year.

Ultimately, the report concludes, the facilities are underfunded and poorly staffed and in some instances the caseloads are “unmanageable and a barrier for meaningful treatment to occur.”

However, it’s unclear how many new staffers are needed, how much the reports recommendations will costs and where the funds will come from to improve the dire needs of troubled youth within the system.

Illinois officials, including Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, are considering shifting the Department of Juvenile Justice, which oversees the centers, under the overall umbrella of concerns overseen by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

However experts predict such a move would repeat the mistakes of the past when juvenile justice was part of the Illinois Department of Corrections and only lead to another large bureaucracy for youths to get lost in.

The juvenile justice agency was spun off from the Department of Corrections four years ago due to similar issues, chronic underfunding and inadequate rehabilitation programs.

News of the report comes amid a major state budget crisis for Illinoisans as hundreds of human services including community programs for teens continue to be slashed due to the country’s poor economy in recent years.

“A more progressive, best-practice approach would be to fund local, community-based services capable of meeting the behavioral health needs of justice-involved youth, while keeping them in their communities and maintaining public safety,” says the report.

Increased staffing, improved training, better programs to prevent juvenile crime and to provide “aftercare” for those who exist the system is what’s needed, notes the report.

Experts claim a poll commissioned as part of the review illustrates broad support for such reforms:

  • 84 percent agree, “Incarcerating youth offenders without rehabilitation is the same as giving up on them.”
  • 85 percent favor redirecting money now spent on incarceration to counseling, education and job-training programs.
  • 59 percent favor community supervision for non-violent juvenile offenders, as opposed to incarceration.

Meanwhile Kurt Friedenauer recently announced he’s resigning as director of the Department of Juvenile Justice.

In the past he has argued the state’s failure to support the department has made it nearly impossible to deliver state-of-the-art mental health treatment to Illinois’ most troubled youths.

The Chicago Tribune notes he was disappointed the reports review team did not dig deeper. He said he had hoped the team would have evaluated the department’s psychiatric treatment and use of medication.

Friedenauer said that the proposed merger with DCFS “was not and is not the basis” for his resignation. He wants to pursue other career opportunities, he said.

Photo: Illinois Youth Center Chicago is one of eight centers maintained by the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice




Pepe Lozano
Pepe Lozano

Chicagoan Pepe Lozano was a staff writer with the People's World through 2014. He comes from an activist family and has lived on the city's southwest side in a predominantly Mexican-American community his whole life. Lozano now works as a union organizer.