A new watchdog report indicates staffing levels of teachers, counselors and security at the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles is so bad that it "potentially violates youths' constitutional right to receive an education and adequate mental health treatment."
The problems follow a doubling of the facility's youth population caused by the closure of the Joliet facility.
The John Howard Association of Illinois issued the report Tuesday after on-site interviews and observations. The group is a nonpartisan criminal justice system watchdog.
Last year, the association supported the housing of more juvenile offenders in St. Charles during an interview with the Daily Herald Editorial Board.
Jennifer Vollen-Katz, director of the association's juvenile justice project, said in an interview Tuesday that the closure of the Joliet facility was still the right move even if the transition of many of those youths to St. Charles has been problematic.
"It was the right thing, but it was a challenging thing to do," Vollen-Katz said. "How you change the facility to adjust to the new population, that's still a work in progress."
One of the major problems is a critical understaffing of teachers at the facility. The report states the center needs twice as many teachers as it now employs.
The access to education is further stymied by a shortage of security. Many of the youths at the St. Charles facility require lengthy transportation to and from court appearances. Security required for that transportation often leaves the facility without adequate protection to move youths to and from classrooms.
At one point, observers were told the youths had access to school only for half a day, every other day.
Vollen-Katz said St. Charles has traditionally not had problems attracting staffers, but she noted the addition of the Joliet youths brings a quantity of more serious offenders to the facility that the staff is not accustomed to.
Administrators at the center told observers they've had to rely more often on discipline that involves placing the youths in periods of isolated confinement that last, on average, 2.35 days. That follows a trend of longer periods of isolated confinement at the facility during the past few years.
That's a trend that is "troubling by any analysis," the report states, because it means less time spent constructively rehabilitating the youths.
"So it seems to me that adding staff, security would be part of the solution, but I don't know if that solves the whole problem," Vollen-Katz said.
The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, in a written response to the report, said the agency has hired outside experts, including a professional development consultant and a project manager, to identify areas to improve the St. Charles facility. It is also working to fill staff vacancies "as quickly as possible" while enhancing training for existing staff members, the statement said.
The agency created a statewide Youth Advisory Council with youth representatives from each juvenile facility to communicate the concerns of their peers. There is also state legislation to create an independent ombudsman for the youth centers.
"The IDJJ is committed to providing a safe and supportive environment to help our youth successfully reintegrate into their communities," the statement reads. "The department's goal is to ensure youth become productive citizens, and we are closely reviewing the issues raised in the report. The department is currently assessing staffing levels and program needs at IYC St. Charles. As noted in the report, we are also developing a strategy to address issues raised in ongoing litigation."
The physical conditions of the St. Charles youth center also seem to be an ongoing problem despite a $5 million cash infusion to upgrade the facility's infrastructure last year.
The association's report echoes concerns about the cleanliness of the confinement rooms at the facility first cited in studies that followed a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2012. That lawsuit involved substandard living conditions at all the juvenile detention facilities in Illinois. It showed youth cells, including rooms at St. Charles, that were "generally unclean, with the noticeable smell of feces and trash." That lawsuit was settled by the state, but the court-mandated remedies are not yet fully implemented.
Vollen-Katz said the St. Charles youths are also not getting proper access to mental health care. That, combined with all the other issues, stacks the odds against the youths reforming into productive members of society, she said.
"There are so many challenges to the facility," Vollen-Katz said. "Unless improvements are made, based on what we know, the expectation is certainly not a good outcome for those youths once they are released."