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After three investigations into alleged abuses at Santa Clara County’s juvenile hall, the judges, county officials and probation staff who oversee the facility all seem to agree change is needed. But first, they may need to agree on who is in charge — the bench or the county. Late last month, county officials put out a commissioned report that dinged the hall for its jail-like atmosphere and called for a complete culture change. Still to come is a final report from the Department of Justice, which launched a probe earlier this year into claims that about 25 juveniles were physically abused by probation staff. The district attorney’s office is also investigating. The problem, says County Counsel Ann Ravel, is that the probation officials overseeing the hall answer to the bench, leaving county officials to pay the bills and take the heat for problems that they have no power to correct. As in most counties, the court selects the chief probation officer and sets policies and procedures for the department. But the county funds its $93 million budget. “That is the thing that is creating a huge amount of frustration,” Ravel said. “It’s a huge problem for there to be unclear lines of authority for juvenile probation, or any probation. We have no involvement in the selection [of staff], or in any kind of counseling, or review of their work. The policies that are in place at the juvenile facility are court policies, not county policies. Yet we have all the liability.” Court management of probation departments isn’t just an issue in Santa Clara. Problems with probation led Alameda County voters to strip the court of its hire-and-fire authority over the probation chief last year. And in June, a Judicial Council task force issued a report calling for counties and courts to improve partnerships governing the management and accountability of locally run probation departments. But the judge assigned to oversee the Santa Clara juvenile court and juvenile hall defends the joint management structure now in place. Judge Raymond Davilla Jr. says the court is accountable and is working on fixing the problems that have popped up in the wake of the abuse claims. “Technically, the buck would stop with the court if we didn’t think action was being taken to correct what needs to be corrected,” Davilla said. “One of the changes we made early on in the court is getting daily reports of juvenile hall incidents.” But he concedes that it’s difficult for judges to effectively oversee the department. “The policy decisions are difficult for courts to deal with. We can say this is how we want it to happen, but implementing it while you are running a courtroom is a difficult task, so you have to rely on the Probation Department.” Santa Clara has long lauded its juvenile justice system, with its mental health court and diversion programs, as a national model. But earlier this year, the DOJ launched a civil rights investigation after claims surfaced that beatings by hall counselors had left some kids with bruises and broken bones. A series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News pointed to an inadequate reporting system that didn’t track complaints or loop in top management or the court. So far, local and federal investigators have pointed to no systemic abuses, but have recommended a host of procedural and policy changes and urged closer oversight. The Justice Department is expected to release its full findings later this year. Ravel says county supervisors have had to respond to the claims but feel there is little they can do to address concerns because of the court’s control. Ravel commissioned the most recent report by David Roush with RenascenceJuvenile Justice Consultants. “I certainly think the courts are aware the Board is frustrated over their lack of ability to control” juvenile hall policies, Ravel said. “This local court is pretty strong that they should keep responsibility with the court.” Courts may have good reason to fear losing control over probation. Judges in Alameda County recently learned of one drawback when the probation department, strapped for cash, decided it could no longer afford to do the drug testing and probation reports needed to effectively operate some drug courts and diversion programs. But Ravel argues there’s an inherent difficulty in asking politically insulated judges to set public policy. “Probation is really a local community kind of interest,” Ravel said. “It should be governed by some agency responsive to the community.” Davilla concedes that neither the court nor Probation Department Executive John Cavalli were receiving information about abuse complaints, and blames a faulty reporting system. “It goes without saying that information was not being received,” Davilla said. But he said the court has since outlined how complaints should be filed and processed. And he points to the creation of a joint juvenile task force — which includes Presiding Judge Thomas Hansen, Supervising Juvenile Judge Leonard Edwards and County Supervisor Blanca Alvarado — as proof the court is dedicated to joint management. “There is a lot being done,” Davilla said. “The watchdog will be the court.” But it will have to do a better job than it has in the past, contends Santa Clara Deputy Public Defender Andy Gutierrez. He represented a 14-year-old who he says was thrown to the ground by a juvenile hall staffer in 2000. “His head hit the ground; he started getting blood pools under his eye,” Gutierrez said. “Did the court or the court staff take a proactive stance? Did anyone say, ‘This is serious stuff. Let’s have the court investigate.’ Did that happen? No. Should it have? Probably.” For his part, Cavalli said he isn’t sure a different management set-up would make much of a difference. “There is always this serving-two-masters issue,” Cavalli said. “The reality is that probation is still responsive to the court and the Board of Supervisors, no matter what.” Cavalli said the department is “committed to initiate changes that will benefit the minors, the parents and the staff.” Davilla isn’t promising overnight change, however. “When somebody says the philosophy is not right, that’s a major thing,” he said. “It’s not going to be fixed by instant analysis.” And the county will continue to have its say. “It’s a good relationship. It’s the kind of dynamic tension that’s good,” Davilla said. “Both of us come at it with different perspective.”

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