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updated: 9/26/2013 8:35 AM

Reports: Bad conditions linger at youth homes

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Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD-- A year after Illinois was sued and reached a settlement over inadequate conditions in its juvenile detention centers, two separate reports are detailing a number of conditions that the authors say must change.

The first report is by a panel of experts, submitted in U.S. Northern District Court Monday as part of the settlement. It details an eight-month investigation of the state's six juvenile detention centers in Kewanee, St. Charles, Warrenville, Joliet, Harrisburg and Pere Marquette. The juvenile justice and adolescent psychiatric experts describe incarcerated teens mowing lawns during the school day, being improperly medicated and routinely subjected to more solitary confinement than necessary.

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The second report, by watchdog group the John Howard Association, was obtained by The Associated Press ahead of its scheduled release Thursday morning.

The group examined conditions at Kewanee, a specialized mental health facility that's seen an influx of maximum security inmates following the closure of another facility by Gov. Pat Quinn. The Joliet Youth Center closed in February as part of Quinn's decision to shutter several Illinois prisons and other facilities as a way to save money. The report says Kewanee is a facility with "extremely limited resources" to deal with its population of juvenile sex offenders and youths with acute mental illness.

As a result of transfers, the John Howard team visiting in July found that half the Kewanee population were reincarcerated parole violators from Cook County.

The American Civil Liberties Union -- whose 2012 court case against the state prompted the settlement mandating the 8-month review of conditions -- says it isn't surprised with the court-ordered review's findings.

"What it confirms is that youths are not getting adequate education and mental health services," ACLU attorney Ruth Brown said. "They're being confined after they're ready for release only because IDJJ has not found them a bed in the community."

The ACLU proposed the settlement last fall at the same time it filed a federal class-action lawsuit. The department settled, and a judge in a consent decree set up a timeline by which specific actions should be taken.

The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice now has two months to draft a plan to address the problems outlined in the reports.

"The Department of Juvenile Justice received the reports filed with the court and is reviewing them in detail and working with our counsel to take the next steps as set forth in the consent decree," spokeswoman Jennifer Florent said.

The court-ordered report says youths aren't receiving a full-time education program because of teaching vacancies and a lack of support staff. Students who had not yet received their high school diploma or GED were found mowing lawns or doing other institutional work during the school day.

Teachers are demoralized, and there is a frequent use of "punitive and ineffective responses to student behavior." The six homes house more than 800 inmates between the ages of 13 and 20 and are operating "far below minimally accepted standards at comparable facilities across the country."

Mental health services were also lacking due to staffing shortages. Experts found an insufficient number of mental health professionals, including the "absence of a child and adolescent psychiatrist anywhere in the IDJJ" as well as the failure of many mental health staff to hold necessary licenses.

Residents were sometimes improperly sent to solitary confinement for 22 hours a day, and procedures weren't followed in administering medications.

While residents did not complain of physical abuse by staff at the youth homes, residents often described in interviews "daily verbal assaults by some staff that question their gender identities, threaten physical violence, attack the integrity of their families, and suggest that these youth will continue as criminals" according to the report submitted to the court.

The report on the Kewanee facility, which specializes in treating youths with mental problems, found that conditions had not improved since the John Howard organization visited and lodged concerns a year ago. The group said the facility still has not hired enough staff to deliver adequate mental health treatment. While the state has budgeted for 17 mental health professionals, only 10 were on hand in July.

The group found that 14 youths were being kept in prison, even though the Prison Review Board had approved their release, because the state could not find appropriate homes outside the prison.

The group said it remains "deeply concerned" that the state juvenile justice department "has continued to concentrate its most difficult and needy youth in a facility that has historically struggled due to extremely limited resources, in a location that is hundreds of miles away from most of the youths' homes, making consistent and meaningful family visitation and access to counsel almost impossible."

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