Training, hiring to be examined
Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice administrators are examining their hiring and training practices in the wake of two escapes from Jetson Center for Youth that cost four people their jobs and led to another three being placed on administrative leave.
The incidents — one of which involved the director of Jetson — occurred during the past seven months and OJJ Deputy Secretary Mary Livers said she’s taking a fresh look at how juvenile services employees are hired and trained.
“We have the proper staff ratio, so if staff would be diligent and do those things that are spelled out” for them, incidents like the escapes should not happen, Livers said.
Currently, the office’s only hiring requirements for an entry-level position are that a person be 18 years old and felony free, Livers said. OJJ’s training stipulations include a five-week course addressing topics such as juvenile monitoring, report writing and delinquent behavior, she said.
Employees also receive 40 hours of continuing education a year, and supervisors get additional job-appropriate training, Livers said.
The office’s hiring and training requirements have shifted during the past few years as it moved from a correctional approach to a therapeutic one, Livers said. Additional adjustments, however, might be necessary to ensure the office is hiring people who understand the balance between public safety and the therapeutic approach, she said.
“The therapeutic model is based on relationships, but it’s relationships with boundaries,” Livers said. “So, we have to continue to look at our workforce needs and ask ourselves if we’ve raised the bar high enough to be able to carry out this approach.”
Livers said that question was highlighted to administrators recently when three OJJ employees were put on administrative leave after the escape of two teens from Jetson.
Daron Brown, Jetson’s director, was put on administrative leave July 7 after he claimed to have chased a vehicle he believed was carrying two juveniles who escaped from Jetson earlier this month.
Law enforcement representatives from the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office, Baton Rouge Police Department, Kenner Police Department and State Police have all said they never located the pursuit and were never notified by other drivers about the chase, which allegedly occurred on July 6 and spanned Interstate 10 from Baton Rouge to Kenner.
Livers said based on a pending internal investigation into the matter, Brown thought there was a car with the escaped youths in it and tried to chase the vehicle.
Livers would not say whether Brown acted outside his authority, citing the investigation. However, she said Brown used poor judgment when he decided to participate in the pursuit.
Livers said the investigation into Brown should be complete within the next 45 days. The administration’s investigation into two of its juvenile justice specialists — the front-line supervisors of youths at Jetson — should be finished within that same time frame or sooner, she said.
So far, the investigation has determined the employees “failed to adequately observe” Demonte Washington, 15, and Clarence McWilliams, 18, on July 3 in the center’s recreation yard, Livers said.
As a result, one of the teens removed part of the exterior fence surrounding Jetson and slithered underneath it, Livers said. The other teen scaled the top of the fence, which is lined with razor wire. Authorities found Washington and McWilliams four days later in a house in the 1000 block of America Street.
A similar situation played out on Dec. 27 when three teens cut through the exterior fence before walking away from the facility, authorities have said. The teens, one of whom was a convicted rapist, were found six hours later about 8 miles from the center’s campus on Scenic Highway near Baker.
An investigation into the escape showed two employees left a dormitory housing teens at Jetson unwatched for eight hours, allowing the youth to pry loose ceiling tiles in the bathroom, gain access to an adjoining room through the ceiling and flee, authorities have said. During the same time frame, two other employees failed to monitor the grounds at Jetson, the investigation found.
Three of the employees were fired and another one resigned in lieu of termination, Livers said. One of the employee’s who was fired appealed the disciplinary action to the state’s civil service commission and has since been reinstated, she said.
To try to lessen the number of escapes due to staff negligence, Livers said she is looking at the possibility of giving preference to job candidates who have two- and four-year degrees. She said she would like to be able to offer such candidates a higher wage.
That approach is in line with what Missouri’s Division of Youth Services did several years ago in implementing the acclaimed Missouri Model for dealing with juvenile offenders. Louisiana began the process of adopting Missouri’s method about nine years ago as part of its juvenile justice reform plans required by federal law.
Bill Vaughn, a senior consultant with the Missouri Youth Services Institute, said Missouri’s minimum hiring requirements used to be like Louisiana’s but officials in that state worked incrementally to increase the quality of its candidate pool.
The Institute is a nonprofit organization founded by Mark D. Steward, who is credited with founding the Missouri Model, a treatment-based method of caring for juvenile delinquents placed in the state’s custody.
Now, Vaughn said, an entry-level position with Missouri’s Division of Youth Services requires someone with juvenile justice experience and an associate’s degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree, preferably in psychology, social work or criminal justice.
The increased requirements have enabled the state to offer better compensation packages to youth services professionals, Vaughn said. It also has helped to retain such employees.
Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Louisiana Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, said it is clear that improvements need to be made in the way that juveniles in secure care facilities in Louisiana are being treated.
Kaplan’s organization recently joined Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children in filing a federal lawsuit against the state. The lawsuit alleges that some juveniles in state custody have been denied access to legal counsel. The lawsuit also alleges that some juveniles have suffered abuse inside the facilities.
“We decided to become a part of the lawsuit because there were increasing barriers to us actually accessing youth in the facilities,” Kaplan said. “Why that was particularly urgent to us was we are continuing to hear of the problems that were plaguing these particular facilities, including violent incidents, inadequate medical care, real lack of mental health services.”
Kaplan said she does not believe the state has fully implemented the therapeutic model and understands youth are receiving less counseling, vocational programming and schooling. She said Gov. Bobby Jindal’s cuts to OJJ’s budget during the past few years have negatively affected the “ability of reform to move forward.”
Livers acknowledged that her budget has been slashed by $52 million between 2008 and this year but said her agency has made progress and is “confident that what we are doing is what we are supposed to be doing and meets the constitutional requirements of what’s expected of us.”