Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall under fire from regulators

Nine months after state regulators ordered Los Angeles County officials to transfer hundreds of youths out of two troubled juvenile halls, they are now considering closing a third hall — the one that probation officials recently reopened to appease regulators in the first place.

The Board of State and Community Corrections sent a letter Wednesday to Probation Department Chief Guillermo Viera Rosa detailing numerous persistent problems inside Los Padrinos, including too few staff on hand, not enough safety checks and too little programming.

The letter said the county had not followed its own plan to fix the facility’s problems and that it was now at risk of being shut down after consistently failing to comply with a number of state regulations. Regulators were considering the same fate for the youths still at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, where inspections turned up similar issues.

The regulatory board informed the county Wednesday that it would meet on Feb. 15 and vote on whether the two facilities are “suitable” for juveniles. According to a spokesperson for the state board, members could decide at the meeting to order the facilities shut down, leaving the county scrambling, once again, to move everyone out.

It’s an embarrassing place for the county to find itself less than year after the same agency ordered all youths out of Central Juvenile Hall in Boyle Heights and most out of Nidorf. Youths accused of more serious crimes stayed at Nidorf’s Secure Youth Treatment Facility because the regulatory agency didn’t have oversight powers over this population. Gov. Gavin Newsom changed that in his budget last year.

The state order, which came after years of failure by the county to make improvements, left county officials scrambling to figure out where to place 300 youths. They landed on Los Padrinos in Downey, which had been closed years ago after allegations of abuse by staff.

But it became clear immediately the agency’s problems were not going away with a new facility. Within a month of touting “mission accomplished,” there was a chaotic escape attempt, a gun found at the facility, and persistent call-outs by staff who said they didn’t feel safe showing up to work.

Last week, the Probation Department reassigned a number of high-level supervisors to Los Padrinos due to “high levels of youth-on-youth violence, assaults on officers, widespread apathy among officers,” according to an internal department document obtained by The Times.

Viera Rosa, the probation chief, said in a lengthy statement Thursday that he agreed with the regulatory board that the facilities were struggling, but believed it had jumped the gun by deeming the new facility a failure.

“We have the dedication, we need the time,” Viera Rosa wrote, adding he felt probation officials had been hamstrung by conflicting rules from various state agencies. “The issues identified by BSCC and others have been persistent for over 20 years. We cannot piecemeal the solution.”

The complaints about violence, poor programming and staffing shortages at Los Padrinos echo those that have plagued the agency for years.

Jerod Gunsberg, a criminal-defense attorney who often represents juveniles, said his clients housed at Los Padrinos often complain of “constant violence” and being confined to their rooms for hours at a time. He was not surprised to learn of the state board’s findings, noting the department did nothing to fix the underlying issues that caused Nidorf and Central to falter before opening the doors at its Downey facility.

“It was a reactive measure,” he said of the move. “It failed to address any of the issues that caused the crisis.”

The county watchdog for the department expressed skepticism at a Thursday meeting that the state board — which one commissioner compared to “a dog with no bite” — would actually shut down the troubled facilities, as well as frustration with the Probation Department for finding itself in regulator’s cross-hairs yet again.

“Some of these are easy fixes — I mean, really easy fixes,” said Sam Lewis, a member of the probation oversight commission as he read off the list of problems the state had found. “I don’t understand why they’re not being solved.”

The county supervisors had hoped Viera Rosa, himself a former member of the Board of State and Community Corrections, would help make Los Padrinos a success. Supervisor Janice Hahn, whose district includes the facility, said in a statement she was dismayed the county was finding itself in a familiar position: Under fire by those with the power to shut the halls down.

“To say I am disappointed is an understatement,” Hahn wrote. “We have long known what the BSCC’s expectations were, and it is troubling that the department made so little progress and fell so short in meeting them. … I pledge to put every available county resource behind bringing these facilities into compliance.

“The alternative is unacceptable.”

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