An independent audit found a scathing report last year on the juvenile detention facility in The Dalles misinterpreted some information, but it did call attention to issues that needed to be addressed.
The juvenile facility will be better because of the December report by Disability Rights Oregon (DRO), an audit by Texas-based Mel Brown and Associates (MBA) concluded.
The audit recommended three new employees be added — two in management and one teacher’s aide — and that a non-voting juvenile representative to the Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility be made into a full voting member.
The audit also found that programming offered at the juvenile facility exceeds what was characterized in the DRO report, and that the educational offerings at the facility met state guidelines.
MBA said misunderstandings in the DRO report resulted not only from a lack of understanding of the juvenile justice system but because some juveniles admitted they “seized an opportunity to exaggerate what was happening within the detention center.”
Sarah Radcliffe, an attorney for DRO who wrote the report, said that in its investigations DRO never solely relies on interviews, but also uses objective evidence like policies and records.
MBA found the facility was “safe, open and hospitable,” and said its layout — allowing almost every area of the facility to be viewed from the control room — allowed more effective supervision than any juvenile facility they’d ever seen.
The audit said youth spoke “very positively about staff,” and it was clear staff cared about youth.
The audit also said no stakeholder, parent, or youth in the facility expressed concern about safety or wellbeing of youth there.
Jail Administrator Bryan Brandenburg said, “I’m pleased that the independent reviews were able to determine that the situation at NORCOR juvenile is not what was portrayed necessarily in the DRO report; that our stakeholders, our staff and the individuals that utilize the juvenile facility reported quite a different situation than what was indicated in the report.”
He said, “The juvenile staff as well as myself and the juvenile directors advisory committee have made a tremendous amount of changes in those areas that did warrant our attention.”
A 2015 report, and now this audit both found that the facility is stronger in practice than it looks on paper, in terms of both written policies and procedures and documentation of what happens in the facility.
MBA wrote, “In most juvenile detention centers, the facility’s policies on environment are much stronger than the practice. The opposite is true of the NORCOR facility.”
MBA said that while a rapid effort is underway to improve policies, much remains to be done to make them clearer, more detailed and easy for staff to follow.
On staffing, MBA said it “had serious concerns about the management staffing level,” saying it was “highly irregular” that such a facility, with programming for pre-adjudicated and adjudicated (sentenced) youth, not have a licensed case manager.
Brandenburg said the budget simply doesn’t allow for adding staff. A case manager position was eliminated before Brandenburg came on board three years ago, and during his tenure, a supervisory position was changed to improve staffing coverage and put more personnel on the floor.
“As has been the case for the last several years, we have been forced to make do with our current funding,” to provide services, Brandenburg said. “And it has been, and continues to be, a struggle to provide those services.”
Candy Armstrong, superintendent of North Wasco County School District 21, which contracts to provide education at the facility said, “We will certainly consider any recommendations from the audit in determining staffing levels.”
This audit comes in the context of one of the four member counties of the regional jail, Hood River County, facing a severe budget shortfall. The county may ask the jail what its funding obligation would look like if the juvenile facility was closed.
The juvenile facility has a $1.7 million budget and the adult facility has a $6.4 million budget.
Radcliffe said she was struck by a statement in the audit that found many stakeholders felt jail administration was unresponsive to the findings of the 2015 report that found policy and documentation deficiencies.
The problems cited in the 2017 DRO report were long known to administration, she said, but there was a lack of motivation to fix them.
“So we’re glad that our report instigated some really positive reforms at NORCOR, and I think that this later report by Mel Brown documents a lot of these positive changes and creates a blueprint for further improvements,” Radcliffe said.
“A lot of change has happened in the last six months and that’s great, that was the intent of shining a light on the problem,” she said.
She visited the juvenile facility again in February and found many positive changes: kids were locked down in rooms “much, much less,” there was a written grievance process, they could keep more personal items in their rooms, there was more access to visitation and programming, and the behavior system was overhauled to make it more about positive incentives rather than punitive measures.
The audit was sought by the regional jail because the Oregon Youth Authority pulled its youth from the facility after the DRO report came out. Juvenile officials from the regional jail’s member counties said an independent report was needed before the state would feel comfortable returning its youth to The Dalles.
The audit said the DRO “over generalized” the length of stay for youth at the jail, comparing state averages for all types of admissions to NORCOR, which includes youth sentenced to sometimes lengthy stays. It noted the regional jail has no control over how long youth are sentenced to be at the facility.
The DRO report contended conditions were “inhumane” at the facility and that youth were left alone in their cells for hours, a characterization that the facility strenuously objected to.
Numerous changes were rightfully made as a result of the DRO report, the audit said, including allowing youth to have more personal belongings with them, a journal and flex pen, and to no longer be banned from phone calls if they were on disciplinary status.
The facility also got rid of a punitive list of rules that included items such as “don’t look around” and “don’t ask the time.” The facility previously had no clocks, but has many of them now.
The audit reported that the Oregon Youth Authority said of the roughly 225 youth sent to NORCOR, only one complaint was received, and it was regarding food.
While youth acknowledged and appreciated the changes made, the audit said personnel are feeling the effects of the “rapidly applied policy changes.” It said new policies had been enacted without sufficient training.
It recommended more training from credentialed instructors on verbal de-escalation and physical restraint techniques, two critical training areas.
It also recommended youth be out of rooms as much as possible, and that current policy language appears restrictive. It also encouraged that they be allowed to exercise outdoors and participate regularly in the gardening program.
It recommended random room checks, no longer than 15 minutes apart, saying, “We cannot overemphasize the importance of this.”
The audit said a wide variety of juvenile justice stakeholders were interviewed, and most felt jail administration has not provided enough oversight of the juvenile facility by not providing jail board members with information to make informed decisions. It was described as a bias toward the adult facility that results in disproportionate allocation to the adult jail.
Many stakeholders felt the administration was unresponsive to the 2015 report findings, and they said they felt “disenfranchised” from decision-making by the administrator, and a lack of transparency and communication regarding issues that affect the juvenile facility.
Brandenburg said, “The administrator is responsible for all operational issues for both the adult and juvenile facility and has been actively involved in advocating and designing and implementing changes for both the adult and juvenile facilities.”
Brandenburg said the facility began modifying policies about a year ago, and the audit report referenced “things we were working on anyway. It just added to a need we already knew existed.”