The Los Angeles County Probation Department is stumbling in its implementation of reforms demanded by the U.S. Justice Department at juvenile halls, according to a recent audit.
In a report to the county Board of Supervisors, Auditor-Controller Wendy Watanabe explained her office continued monitoring the juvenile halls after the DOJ concluded in 2009 that the department had already completed the reforms listed in a consent decree.
After an audit early last year, she noted, "Probation was not always complying with all the settlement agreement requirements."
Follow-up audits -- one at the beginning of this year, and another conducted recently -- tracked the problems and found they had not been corrected.
"Overall, Probation has not made significant progress," Watanabe wrote in her report.
Probation deputy chief Sharon Harada said the department strives to fulfill the consent decree as much as possible.
"We do internal checks but it's a daily process and we have three shifts in every juvenile hall," Harada said.
"We do the best we can," she added. "We always want to be in compliance. Sometimes, we are not always 100 percent, but we are definitely trying."
The audit found that juvenile hall staff sometimes abandoned minors who required "enhanced supervision," and pepper sprayed minors despite risks to their health.
It also noted that supervisors did not always properly review incidents of staff resorting to force against minors.
"Probation management needs to continue to ensure that supervisors conduct timely and thorough reviews of use of force incidents (i.e. involving soft restraints, chemical restraints, or physical interventions)," the audit said. "Probation management also needs to ensure that staff members do not leave their assigned post, or leave minors unattended while on enhanced supervision status."
The audit found an instance where a staffer left 10 minors unattended. There were also cases where staffers left one or two minors without supervision.
Staff at the juvenile halls are supposed to list the names of minors who cannot be subjected to pepper spray because they're on psychotrophic medication or have fragile medical conditions, such as heart disease and asthma.
The audit, however, found that six of the 48 minors pepper sprayed from December 2012 through February 2013 were on that "do not spray" list.
In a letter to Watanabe, Probation Chief Jerry Powers explained three of the minors were involved in a gang fight, two others were trying to escape, and one minor was assaulting staff, making the use of pepper spray "acceptable under the circumstances."
He acknowledged, however, that staff should have immediately reported their use of pepper spray, and referred the minors to mental health consultation afterwards.
Not all of the staff had the required pepper spray canisters. During the audit, two had to retrieve theirs from their car and their locker, another admitted having left hers at home, while another said his had been stolen over a month ago.
One staffer's canister was missing nine bursts of pepper spray. She said it was because she had dropped it at home a month before, causing it to discharge.
Powers agreed with the findings of the audit, and said "corrective action" is underway.
"Additionally," he added, "Probation's internal audit team has conducted random audits at the juvenile halls to identify deficiencies in staffing, specifically in the supervision of minors who have been placed on enhanced supervision status."
Powers said staffers have been provided written instructions on proper procedure. In at least one case, disciplinary action is being considered.
On the plus side, the audit found that Probation has been able to implement strategies for reducing youth-on-youth violence, including training staff in behavior management and response to gang dynamics.