Scathing Report of Award-Winning Detention Camp Questions Progress of L.A. Juvenile Justice Reform

Camp Kilpatrick in Malibu is the centerpiece of Los Angeles County’s juvenile justice reform agenda. (Photo: Jeremy Loudenback) 

Campus Kilpatrick, the $53 million juvenile detention camp where Los Angeles County is spearheading its reform agenda, is facing scrutiny following a scathing report from a member of the probation department’s independent oversight commission.

After a visit to the Malibu camp in May, Probation Commissioner Jacqueline Caster reported that the probation department was not applying the principles and policies of the therapeutic, trauma-informed “LA Model” being piloted at Kilpatrick, with plans of eventually disseminating it to all county detention camps.

The report says that the celebrated camp, which has elicited praise and national awards, is failing to deliver on its reform promises — succumbing to “old model” practices and becoming a “de [facto] mental health facility.”

Understaffing and a lack of adequate therapeutic and recreational programming were among the Caster’s concerns, as well as delays in collecting data to use in evaluating the program.

“Without a change in course, this facility may soon join all the existing Los Angeles County Probation camps with historically poor performances,” Caster writes of the ambitious, year-old pilot.

LA County Chief Deputy of Juvenile Services Sheila Mitchell. Photo courtesy of County of Los Angeles

Sheila Mitchell, chief deputy of juvenile services, said Caster’s single two-hour visit was not enough time for her to have a complete view of the department’s efforts at the camp.

“That was just not an accurate depiction of what’s happening here,” Mitchell told The Chronicle of Social Change.

Earlier this week, the probation department released a response to the criticisms, which point by point refutes or attempts to contextualize each of Caster’s charges. Chief Mitchell, Deputy Chief David Mitchell, and Camp Director Katheryn Beigh defended their work at the camp in a subsequent interview with The Chronicle as well.

Short Staffed and Outmatched

Caster’s report calls out a number of lapses and problematic situations stemming from staffing shortages.

The small group sessions that “represented the core of the LA model” have been discontinued, according to Caster’s report. One of the foundations of the LA Model is a “small-group” theory, where youth live in groups of 10-12, sharing a small homelike living space. They attend school, group therapy and most other daily activities as a unit. Each group is assigned a consistent set of probation officers and mental health clinicians, with the goal of building trust-based relationships.

The approach was developed in part due to the realization that 80 percent of the kids in LA’s juvenile justice system have experienced abuse or neglect.

As part of the small group model, youth at Kilpatrick are housed in groups of 10-12, in settings designed to be more homelike than old-fashioned barrack-style dorms. Photo: Los Angeles Probation Department

The regular small group sessions, as described in the Culture of Care for All report that first laid out plans for the LA Model, are supposed to be the cornerstone of the rehabilitative environment, creating a shared safe space with their group mates and assigned probation officers (POs) that allows them to really open up and work through issues. According to Caster, staff report that because of the inconsistency, the group “has no impact.”

The department admits that these sessions have not been happening because of difficulties in understaffing, and that they are working on ways to incorporate them into the schedule.

While Mitchell said the team at Kilpatrick are there because they want to be part of the change, it has been a struggle to attract officers to such a remote assignment.

Caster also raises concerns that the staff shortage and 56-hour shift schedules, which have POs on campus for two-and-a-half days straight, — condensing a 40-hour work week into that time frame and sleeping on-site — with the following four-and-a-half days off.

Three sets of POs are assigned to each small group and split the week, but their disparate schedules make it difficult to discuss their shared cases and get on the same page when it comes to addressing problematic behaviors.

This concern is echoed in a second assessment of Campus Kilpatrick, completed by Missouri Youth Services Institute (MYSI), which helps train other sites on Missouri’s approach to serving confined youth. The LA Model was adapted in part from Missouri’s programs.

Mark Steward, the director of MYSI, said in the August 30 assessment report that the lack of a unified approach and the chance for staff to meet regularly as a team has resulted in “falling back to old custodial/supervision practices where the focus becomes obtaining institutional compliant behavior as the primary goal instead of internalized change, which should be the mission.”

Steward suggests assigning a group leader who is not tied to a 56-hour shift for each team of POs in order to coach them throughout the week. He also recommended “getting creative” with scheduling to find a way to establish weekly meetings for all staff assigned to each cottage, something he calls a “critical structural component of the Missouri approach. Probation leaders say they are working on a new staffing plan that includes both of these recommendations.

Programming Promises Forgotten?

Part of the promise of Kilpatrick and the LA Model is that there would be abundant educational and extracurricular offerings to help youth discover passions and their educational progress, rather than serving as a setback.

Caster reports that the youth have few opportunities for activities outside of school hours, and that all of the Kilpatrick residents she spoke with reported being bored often (though, to be fair, they are teenagers). She also said that the LA Model promised outings and rewards for improved behavior, but that promise is not being delivered upon.

Camp director Kathryn Beigh said that one of the challenges in implementing the model as designed is reconciling it with existing local, state and federal juvenile justice laws. Staff want to take the youth out more, and have tons of ideas, Beigh said, but can’t even lead them on hikes just outside the fence without permission.

“Sometimes the policies that govern probation and residential treatment don’t always fit into what our model is,” Beigh said.

Caster’s report and other advocates have voiced concerns that too few community-based organizations (CBOs) have been brought onboard to provide activities for the youth.

Arts for Incarcerated Youth (AFIY) is one of just two CBOs currently serving Camp Kilpatrick. Christopher Wilkinson, AFIY’s on-site arts facilitator at the camp, said that his team has been “fully integrated” into the LA model’s treatment plan.

“We’ve gotten no opposition, no type of obstacles put in front of us in terms of adding value to the model,” Wilkinson said. “I’m given the freedom and ability to do a lot in terms of mentorship, arts programming.

From his perspective, Kilpatrick residents have lots of access to activities — the challenge is providing options that are appealing to them and engaging them to participate.

Full Steam Ahead … with No Data?

What happens at Kilaptrick now is significant for the system as a whole because the plan is for the LA Model being piloted there to be eventually implemented at all LA County camps.

The probation department is currently working with consultants on a five-year plan outlining implementation of the model across the system, which could be presented to the probation commission as early as later this year.

LA County Department of Mental Health Director Jonathan Sherin, Department of Public Works Director Mark Pestrella, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, Probation Chief Terri McDonald and Camp Director Katheryn Beigh at the ribbon cutting ceremony for Camp Kilpatrick. Photo: Jeremy Loudenback

But some of the work has already started. The department is beginning to phase in the model at Camp Scott, a juvenile detention camp for girls, and working on plans to redesign the existing high-capacity dorm to accommodate the small-group living situation central to the model.

But one of the issues called out in Caster’s report is a lack of evaluation of the model and its impact on outcomes. Caster said that the process was supposed to start on day one, but at the time of her visit 10 months in, the evaluation was still only in planning phases. Sheila Mitchell said that there were delays in contracting the National Center on Crime and Delinquency to do the evaluation, but that it’s underway now. So far it is only in the data collection phase, so no analysis is yet available.

The department also appears to be moving along in the implementation without the support of the advocates that helped define the LA Model.

Patricia Soung, director of youth justice policy at the Children’s Defense Fund, was on the steering committee that helped develop the LA Model and launch it at Campus Kilpatrick. The plan, she said, was for those advocates to continue advising the implementation process, giving feedback and support, but that hasn’t happened.

“We’re no longer involved,” Soung said, expressing frustration that a “ready set of experts that could be doing oversight” has been left out of the process.

These folks are key to the rehabilitative process per the reform agenda, Soung said, because it is these community-based organizations that continue to serve the youth when they return to their communities.

Changing a System

While Chief Mitchell welcomes the feedback as learning opportunities, probation leaders contend that much of the critique is premature.

The reform model was just developed over the past few years, and implemented for the first time at Kilpatrick in July of 2017. Previously, LA’s incarcerated youth were housed in barracks-style dorms, living in a militaristic culture of control. Kilpatrick is the first attempt to shift toward a therapeutic, trauma responsive model.

“We’re talking about changing a department or a system, changing it on a dime. That doesn’t happen overnight,” Sheila Mitchell said. “We’re not a highly functioning performing team yet,” but she wouldn’t expect them to be just over one year in to such a massive undertaking.

Mitchell previously served as chief of Santa Clara County’s probation department and oversaw a similar reform there. She said it was three years before they started seeing significant changes in outcomes.

Beigh said there wasn’t a single concern mentioned in Caster’s report that she and her team weren’t already aware of and looking for a solution to. She and other probation leaders stress that the LA Model is in early implementation phases yet, and is still being tweaked — daily, they say — in response to new challenges that arise.

Mark Steward of MYSI backed up this defense. He said with many new youth and staff arriving and adjusting to the new model, conflict, stress and challenges can increase.

“In systems terms, it is recognized that this stage is unavoidable and is a necessary passageway to establish a group and team cohesion and camaraderie,” he said. “When managed properly, out of this conflict comes growth and stability.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Sheila Mitchell’s title as Chief Probation Officer. Her accurate title is Chief Deputy, Juvenile Services.

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Sara Tiano
About Sara Tiano 46 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change

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