By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
On a warm day in mid-May, the Black Canyon School campus is quiet and clean, the rose and hibiscus bushes as well-groomed as the girls in their white sneakers, khakis and regulation bras visible beneath peach polo shirts. The Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections girls school -- off Happy Valley Road on I-17 in far north Phoenix -- doesn't look much like a juvenile detention facility until a guard rushes by, paged by security, and you notice that the doors are thick metal and lock automatically with a heavy, institutional click. Even the razor wire is covered in ivy, a whimsical touch for a place that houses delinquent kids.
Next door is the boys' school, Adobe Mountain, an equally serene setting with yellow-teed young men raking the grounds or walking in double lines to the cafeteria. They wear funny-looking belts with their jeans, Velcro closures instead of metal buckles.
ADJC operates facilities in Buckeye and Tucson, as well, with about 1,000 kids housed by the state's juvenile corrections system at a time -- just a tiny percentage of the 40,000-plus who show up for juvenile court. A kid will appear in court an average of six times before being "disposed" -- the lingo is different with juveniles, you don't say sentenced -- to ADJC.
You'll rarely find a youth in ADJC custody anymore for a serious violent crime. But while their crimes may be petty -- repeat offenses for probation violation, trespassing, shoplifting, alcohol possession -- these are kids with serious problems: drug addiction, abusive homes, gang involvement, mental illness.
"The reality is we have a pretty good track record," says Steve Meissner, the ADJC spokesman who regularly leads tours through Adobe and Black Canyon. Today he's got a group of Maricopa County probation officers, and Meissner is a good salesman, proudly showing off the facilities' clean grounds and specialized programs.
"One of the reasons we're as good as we are is because we got our butts sued," he says disarmingly, explaining that it cost the state $35 million to make improvements required by the federal court after conditions at ADJC facilities were found substandard in the late '80s and early '90s. Although the court order requiring changes expired in 1998, ADJC has only continued to get better, Meissner tells the probation officers.
And after a three-hour, feel-good tour, you might just believe him.
Isolated, Locked Down Too Long
Rebecca appeared to be in a trance as she sat in chapel one Sunday this past April. She began hallucinating out loud, according to reports taken at the time, slapping and punching herself in the face.
When Rebecca ran out the door, other girls and corrections officers chased her, finally forcing her face down on the ground and trying to keep her from slamming her head into the gravel while she was handcuffed.
And then, as frequently happens when befuddled staff don't quite know what to do with terribly troubled kids, Rebecca was locked up by herself.
On April 17, security guards brought Rebecca to the "separation unit" -- the agency's euphemism for solitary confinement -- at Black Canyon School.
According to materials from Rebecca's file obtained by New Times, the girl was kept in almost constant isolation for more than two weeks, in a small, dim cell outfitted only with a bed frame and mattress, metal toilet and sink, and a Bible.
She was allowed to exercise one hour a day; another hour a day was spent with a teacher, even though children are to receive four hours of education per day. Rebecca was never to leave her cell without a guard. She received a visit from a chaplain once a week, a counselor three times a week and a psychiatrist "when needed." She could make one five-minute phone call per week.
Rebecca's case sounds eerily similar to the case of Matthew Davey Johnson.
In 1986, Tucson civil rights attorney Grace McIlvaine was asked to represent Johnson, who was being held at Catalina, a juvenile corrections facility near Tucson. McIlvaine recalls the first visit she made to Johnson; he had been in solitary confinement for about a month, as part of a behavior-modification plan endorsed by the agency's director, James Upchurch.
"There was a cement floor, cement block walls, very narrow windows, like not even a foot wide, and they were so dirty you could hardly see out so there was almost no natural light," McIlvaine remembers. "There was no furniture except for a toilet and a sink and a metal bed that had a metal rim that stuck up around the edge so if you tried to sit on it, it cut into the back of your legs. . . . No mattress. No chair. No radio, no TV. He was allowed one book, the Bible."
That visit led to the lawsuit and court order, designed to ensure that draconian conditions in the state's youth corrections facilities improved. And they did, for a while.
Now, as cases like Rebecca's suggest, ADJC administrators are allowing conditions to deteriorate.
According to her file, Rebecca was to remain in separation until her 18th birthday on May 29 -- at which time she would be released from ADJC's custody to the street -- or until she completed the "Six Principles of Behavior," an extensive series of worksheets requiring her to answer essay questions about acceptable behavior at Black Canyon.
Although her rap sheet is long -- shoplifting, probation violation, possession of drug paraphernalia, "threatening and intimidation" -- Rebecca had committed no violent offenses before her arrival at Black Canyon.
Once at the facility, she was charged with aggravated assault against a corrections officer. In another incident, she threatened a girl with a toothbrush sharpened into a weapon.
This was clearly a child in no shape to complete worksheets. According to ADJC records, Rebecca has been diagnosed as possibly psychotic or bi-polar. "Since youth has been at BCS, youth has began cutting on her arms," her file states, noting "incidents of suicidal gestures, need for mental health hospitalization, self-abusive behaviors. . . ."
And those are just a few of her problems. Rebecca's file also notes that prior to her incarceration she used drugs daily for five to six years, including cocaine, methamphetamines, marijuana, alcohol and acid. She's been involved in gang activity. There has been domestic violence in her home. She's a ward of Child Protective Services; her father doesn't want her home.
So ADJC officials did what they often do when faced with a kid like Rebecca. They locked her away.
Each of ADJC's facilities has a separation cottage, designed to house violent or otherwise dangerous juveniles in small cells for short periods of time -- 30 minutes, a couple of hours, perhaps a day -- until they can control their behavior and are no longer a threat to themselves or others.
But increasingly, according to department records and interviews with staff, those intended short periods are turning into days, even weeks or months.
Before he came to the agency in 1994, ADJC Director David Gaspar says, corrections officers ran the separation units. He replaced the guards with "mental health treatment coordinators" who are required to have a master's degree in counseling or a related field.
But those treatment specialists don't have final say on whether a youth is put in separation, or for how long. That is left to administrators. And staff say the administrators often overrule the treatment coordinators because of what they describe as a culture of convenience. This despite the fact that the federal court order requires the department to use separation only "to protect the youth or others from imminent risk of injury, destruction of property, disruption of the facility or escape risk."
Gaspar describes separation as a "pretty nice package" -- an "intensive intervention environment for a kid who has demonstrated he cannot perform satisfactorily in the general population." Kids are judged on "attitude, behavior and skills" (that's where the worksheets come in) and are not allowed out until they change.
And if that takes more than a few hours or a day, so be it, Gaspar says. He refuses to discuss Rebecca's case or any other, but does acknowledge that earlier this year a boy at Catalina Mountain School was held in separation for 53 days.
Is Gaspar comfortable with that?
"I would say yeah, that kids who are in those programs earn their way out of those programs and to the degree that a kid either chose not to earn his way out or it took him that long with us to get a handle on those sorts of issues, yeah," he says.
An April 20 report noted that 11 ADJC kids were then being held in separation for 24 hours or more, including five who had been isolated for seven days or more.
And it looks like the time kids spend in separation will only increase in the future.
A policy drafted this year by ADJC officials and signed by assistant director Joe Taylor sets out a plan whereby a youth accused of assaulting another youth or staff member will remain in separation until an investigation is complete -- something officials acknowledge can take several months. Gaspar says the policy is not yet in place.
Putting a kid in separation requires paperwork and approval up the ladder. Some staff members prefer to put kids in "exclusion," where the juveniles are simply locked in their own cells instead of transported to separation cottages. According to the federal court order, exclusion is only to be used for two hours at a time, but records indicate kids are sometimes locked in their cells for days.
And it's not uncommon for an entire cottage to be locked down. In 1999, the Nova cottage at Adobe Mountain School was locked down for six days. Earlier this year, according to department records, a boy at Adobe Mountain was placed in exclusion for an entire weekend.
Russ Van Vleet, a Utah-based juvenile corrections consultant, has spent 30 years in the business -- including several as one of the monitors of the 1993 federal court order imposed on ADJC facilities.
The need to put kids in isolation is an indication that an institution is poorly managed, he says.
"I'm a little surprised that Arizona would be in a position . . . to justify that procedure. I don't think that's normal and I don't think it's practiced in other places," Van Vleet says.
In the Utah facility reserved for the worst juvenile offenders, the isolation room is used so infrequently it's been turned into a storage facility, he says. In South Carolina, juvenile corrections administrators removed the doors from all of the kids' cells.
"They think the worst thing they can do is lock kids in their rooms," says Van Fleet.
Mental Illness Underestimated, Underfunded
Rebecca was lucky. A youth rights advocate got her out of separation after only 18 days. Three weeks later she turned 18, and was released to the streets -- likely with a 30-day supply of meds and the phone number for Value Options, the state-subsidized mental health agency.
Director Gaspar speaks proudly of how he's added highly trained mental health professionals to his payroll, increased counseling sessions and created new substance abuse programs.
But staff interviewed for this story report a different situation, one which often ignores or even exacerbates mental illness among ADJC's troubled population.
The staff say unqualified corrections officers are leading group sessions and that staff psychiatrists spend more time on administrative chores than with sick kids.
Complicating matters is the fact that kids who started treatment with federal assistance from Medicaid before they got into trouble are dropped from those programs because the feds won't pay for their treatment while they are institutionalized. ADJC staff say it can take weeks or months to get a kid back on the right meds and course of psychiatric treatment once he or she is committed to ADJC.
And likewise, when juveniles like Rebecca are dumped from ADJC custody at 18, they are given little information about how to get Medicaid assistance, let alone how to cope with the outside world.
ADJC does maintain specialty mental health cottages. With 25 beds and a much smaller female population agency-wise, Maya, the girls' cottage at Black Canyon, is seldom filled to capacity.
But there is a perpetual waiting list for Encanto -- the only mental health cottage in the state for boys, with just 34 beds for a pool of more than 750 who need them. Critics say the lack of beds alone is proof that adequate services are not being provided.
Roberto, the boy who cut himself and painted the walls with his own blood (see The Kids Are Not Alright), was recommitted recently to ADJC. He was initially assigned to a cottage in the general population -- even though he was still cutting himself.
His attorney, Barbara Cerepayna, fought to get Roberto a spot in Encanto and she believes he would not have been placed there without a strong advocate, something most kids don't have. Beyond that, she says, "His mental health problems have escalated to such a point that I truly don't know what I'm going to advocate for yet."
Angry parents have filed claims with the state, seeking damages for harm done to kids referred to Encanto but placed in the general population.
Take Mark, for example. He was committed to ADJC and placed at Catalina Mountain School, even though the judge recommended he be sent to the Encanto cottage at Adobe Mountain because of his long history of mental illness. Not only does Encanto offer more extensive mental health services and increased supervision, it also houses boys in single rooms.
Mark was assaulted twice at Catalina, according to a letter his attorney recently sent to the state, in which she demanded $1 million in compensation.
Already fearful for his safety, Mark had been waiting for a corrections officer to escort him to his cell after his cottage watched a video in their day room. John, a boy with a violent history, approached Mark and asked him if he always sat by the officer because he was afraid. Mark told John to shut up, and John attacked him. A staff member had to hit John on the back with a chair to get him off of Mark.
Mark suffered a broken ear drum and permanent hearing loss, a broken nose and possible brain damage.
"In the years that I have been here, I have never seen such a brutal attack on another youth like this one," a corrections officer wrote in a report on the incident, noting that it took 45 minutes to clean up the blood.
Even state officials who keep an eye on the agency's liability are concerned about the way ADJC treats kids with mental health issues. Assistant attorney general Cynthia Choate recently wrote to Phil Lopez, ADJC counsel, requesting information in a case involving Ralph, a boy who was assaulted after he was sent to the Sunrise Mountain facility in Buckeye, instead of the mental health unit at Encanto.
Choate writes, ". . . it does not appear this case will settle for a nominal amount. . . . [If the young man who assaulted Ralph] has a `colorful' history, this may be problematic and further evidence that we should settle the case. . . ."
Gaspar says he could use more mental health beds. But he downplays the need for them. He insists that most of the kids in his custody are not mentally ill, simply delinquents.
A "mental health kid," he says, is "a kid who cannot sort out what day it is or how he faces or she faces today's life and she needs psychotropic drugs, for example, to sort of help create some balance. Those are kids who I think are mental health kids. That's my training.
"Kids who act out and are disrespectful and hurtful, I wouldn't put in the mental health kid definition as I would the previous definition."
The experts disagree. The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors reported earlier this year that 50 percent to 75 percent of youth in public and private corrections programs have at least one diagnosable mental health disorder.
In Arizona, one mental health professional working for ADJC estimates that at least 25 percent to 35 percent of the ADJC youth have mental health problems, with up to 50 percent taking psychotropic medication.
Inadequate Staffing Leads To Abuse
Whether it's a decision to keep a kid in solitary confinement for a month or throwing a back-talking youth to the ground, the poor treatment of kids in ADJC custody boils down to poor staffing.
ADJC officials won't allow New Times to interview staff. In fact, department employees say they have been told they will be fired if they speak to the media. (ADJC spokesman Steve Meissner did not respond to a request for the department's policy.)
But such interviews aren't necessary to determine that ADJC corrections officers are often uneducated, young and inexperienced. Staff members say they also receive very little training and are frequently expected to perform duties they're wholly unsuited for, like filling in as counselors.
Staff who abuse kids are sometimes not disciplined for it. Top ADJC officials like assistant director Joe Taylor have been promoted after repeated questionable altercations with kids.
At 34 percent per year, the position of youth corrections officer has one of the highest turnover rates of any state job. And it's no wonder. At a starting salary of about $23,000, the pay is lousy.
The requirements for an entry-level youth corrections officer are few: six months experience working with youth (that could mean two summers as a lifeguard or some time teaching Sunday school), a cursory criminal background check and a GED. Adult corrections officers spend seven weeks in training as compared with youth corrections officers, who get four, yet who are expected to rehabilitate kids, not just stand guard over them.
The academy training is inadequate and sometimes irresponsible, says one staffer who doubles as an academy instructor. He's seen his colleagues teach recruits to berate kids in group sessions, to tease them about their personal lives and encourage the other kids to make fun.
But that's just part of the problem. "Many who do the recruitment testing will turn down a recruit only to find the `rejected' person sitting in the academy the next week. So the process is a sham if we hire people who our testers and interviewers thought were not appropriate."
One ADJC employee -- a counselor at Adobe Mountain with a college degree and many years experience -- says she's continually amazed by the people allowed to interact and ostensibly rehabilitate some of the state's most troubled kids.
"How to put it without being offensive? One might hire these people to work at a Circle K, but I cannot see hiring them to supervise youth at a correctional facility."
The results are obvious, the counselor says. "Kids are getting beat up, jumped, you name it and it's because staff isn't where they're supposed to be."
Many interviewed for this story suspect the incidents are underreported, because kids fear recriminations from ratting out their keepers.
One entry-level youth corrections officer at Eagle Point, the ADJC facility in Buckeye that accommodates boys from rural counties, says limited training at the ADJC academy has done nothing to prepare her for the mentally ill kids she works with every day.
She remembers an incident late one night when she and another officer were trying to control a boy who was self-abusing. They put him in the restraint chair, where he was pinned down, with an oversized helmet on, including a plastic guard over his face so he couldn't spit at staff.
"I'll bite my tongue off," the boy said, and, as the officer recalls, he almost did.
"He kept biting his tongue and I'm not trained to deal with mental health kids and it was so late at night that no one was coming out there to deal with it," she says.
Another time, she says, "A kid went to the bathroom on the floor in separation and smeared it all on the window and the door in separation and all over the wall and wrote 666 and then started licking it off the window."
This officer has a couple years' experience with adult corrections, a GED and the four weeks of training that ADJC employees receive, but she feels in no way qualified to deal with the troubled kids at Eagle Point.
"It's a joke. They're not really getting the help that they need," she says.
When she began at ADJC, she was assigned to a cottage, and asked to run group-counseling sessions. She received no preparation for this, she says, and the kids quickly got off subject.
Now she works in security, which means she responds to calls for assistance, rather than remaining in a unit. She doesn't have to run counseling sessions anymore, but she still sees mentally ill kids. It's obvious who's on the waiting list for Encanto. They act out, cut themselves, try to bite their tongues off.
It's not fair to the kids or the staff, she says, to put them in this situation.
"The people who work there thought they were going to be a correctional officer and not a therapist."
But the problems with ADJC staff are much more serious than simply not being able to get kids to listen during a counseling session. Kids are physically, verbally and sexually abused. Teachers are getting hurt.
The entry-level corrections officers often aren't much older than the kids, the critics say, and not much more mature. They sneak R-rated movies into the facilities to placate the kids, take smoking breaks when they're supposed to be watching the juveniles and put themselves and others in danger by horsing around with kids they are supposed to be supervising.
Last August, according to an incident report obtained from ADJC, a teacher at Adobe Mountain handed out papers to her class, and one kid crumpled his up. She told him he wouldn't get another and he responded by calling her a "bum fucking bitch." She told him to leave the classroom, and turned her back. The boy hit her in the head with a tube sock containing a bar of soap and a two-inch rock.
The teacher was taken to the hospital, where she received 13 staples in her head for two lacerations, including one that was two inches long.
Such an incident could have been prevented if the teacher had not been left alone in her room without a corrections officer present, say other teachers who commented for this story. The federal court order does not specifically dictate that teachers be accompanied by an officer, but ADJC policy does.
And just last month, John, a boy serving time for 57 counts of child molestation, admitted to staff that he'd been accessing pornography on a computer in Adobe Mountain's maintenance office -- something that likely could have been prevented if the youth-staff ratio were followed, and staff were adequately trained, as dictated by the court.
Department records show ADJC's internal affairs department investigates several dozen cases each year; hundreds more complaints never make it through the grievance process designed to allow kids to air their own concerns.
Those that do are disturbing.
One day in July 1999, corrections officer Jesus Villa was playing around with a kid in the Destiny Cottage at Black Canyon School. The boy (Black Canyon housed boys at the time) sprayed him on the shirt with some window cleaner, so Villa sprayed the kid back -- in both eyes.
As the youth later recalled in an ADJC internal affairs report, "After I sprayed him, I went to the washroom and checked my hair and zits. I did that for about two minutes and then went to my room to tighten my sheets.
"As I was leaving my room, Villa shot me in the right eye with the cleaning fluid. My eye started burning immediately. I grabbed my right eye with my right hand and then Villa shot me in the left eye. He said, `Gotcha, gotcha.'
"I went to the sink and washed my eyes out. My eyes were blurry and burning. . . . I went to John C. Lincoln Hospital and then later taken to an eye doctor. I was told that my corneas were burned.
"Villa did say, `Sorry, sorry, I still love you.'"
ADJC kept Villa on the state payroll for more than a year -- until October 2000, when the officer cut a deal with county prosecutors and was put on probation.
Villa's no longer employed by ADJC.
But corrections officer Richard Woods still is, even thought he pleaded guilty to assault after he hit a 13-year-old kid in the face with a radio in 1998. Woods told investigators the boy threatened to stab him with a pencil, although the youth never made a physical move to do so. The boy wound up with a cut on the cheekbone and discoloration around the eye.
"I reached into my bag of options, and I chose the wrong option," Woods admitted to Maricopa County Superior Court officials, adding that he was not "an angry person," and if he was, he would have been more aggressive.
He served a year probation. ADJC punished him with a 40-hour suspension. Today he's on the job at Adobe Mountain School, working closely with kids.
Gary Andrews, an officer at Catalina Mountain School, was investigated in late 1998 for allegedly kicking a boy to wake him. He denied it -- until the pre-interview for the polygraph exam ADJC asked him to take.
A year and a half later, according to department records, Andrews was demoted. He received an annual pay cut of $280. He's still on the job, as well.
A corrections officer at Eagle Point encouraged a kid to assault another kid. An Adobe Mountain officer purposely slammed a bathroom door on a boy's hand, breaking it. A Catalina Mountain School officer handed out cigars to kids and encouraged them to fight one another in what's known as "street justice" or "room rushing." The officers no longer work for ADJC.
State files also document staff having sexual relations with youth. Some are male on male, as in the case of Sergio Granados, a food-service worker who in August 1999 reportedly grabbed the penis of a boy working in the cafeteria at Adobe Mountain School and then gave the boy gifts of clothing, a camera and money. Granados no longer works at Adobe; criminal charges are pending with the Maricopa County Attorney.
But more often, according to department records, female staff are having sex with boys in their care. A female corrections officer at Eagle Point failed a polygraph test in which she denied having oral sex with a boy while he was in separation in 1999.
Another Eagle Point officer failed a polygraph test in 1999 when she denied having "intimate sexual relations" with a boy. A female officer at Adobe had sexual relations with four boys between March and July 1999 -- including asking a boy to show her his penis, masturbating a boy, allowing a boy to fondle her and having sexual intercourse with a boy in her cottage's "tool room," according to internal affairs reports.
Just this past Saturday, Jim, a 16-year-old Eagle Point detainee, called his father to report that he had been beaten up by staff. According to Joel Ybarra, Jim's dad, Jim had touched an ADJC employee on the butt, on a dare. He was put in handcuffs and taken to separation. On the way, Ybarra says, "three officers started harassing him, teasing him about his ears," which stick out a little. Jim responded with a "fuck you," and the officers threw Jim to the ground. "They started rubbing his face on the gravel and started stepping on his head," Ybarra says, then slammed him into a door.
Jim asked staff to photograph his injuries, but they refused, according to his father, who drove up from Tucson the next day to see Jim's black eye, scratches and bruises.
Jim has been in ADJC custody since February. His dad says his record includes possession of marijuana, car theft (Ybarra's car) and multiple counts of probation violation. He ran from authorities when they tried to pick him up for the latest probation violation, which landed him at ADJC.
"My boy's in there for a reason. He's not an angel. But those officers don't have a right to abuse him," Ybarra says.
The federal court order signed in 1993 does not specifically address such abuse. That, Jan Christian explains, is because the state would not have dared to defend it. The order did require ADJC to adequately train staff and maintain a 1-to-8 staff-to-kid ratio during daytime hours. But staff say that numbers are padded -- secretaries and maintenance crew are included in the department's tally to bolster the ratio -- and that in fact, it's common for a cottage of 24 or more kids to have two staff members on hand at a time.
"People just have to know from the top down that as much as we get frustrated with these kids, hitting them, having sex with them, abusing them" cannot be tolerated, says Superior Court Judge Maurice Portley, who until last month had been chief juvenile court presiding judge since 1998.
"The issue is, would we tolerate this in a school? Would we tolerate it from someone in child protective custody? Would we tolerate it from a parent?"
And while the troubles begin at the bottom, with entry-level corrections officers, they extend all the way up to the highest levels of ADJC.
In 1999, a corrections officer reported that then-Adobe Mountain superintendent Joe Taylor ordered restraints put on a boy who was not at all violent, but instead was sitting in a chair, crying -- a direct violation of the federal court order.
According to a memo written by youth rights ombudsman Terri Capozzi, "The [incident report] itself notes that Mr. Taylor instructed staff to place mechanical restraints on the youth before the youth became physically aggressive. In fact, it appears that the youth did not actually become aggressive until orders were issued to restrain him. If the youth is to be believed, he feared being restrained and forced to return to a cottage where he felt unsafe." (The boy had been arguing with other kids in his unit.)
A year earlier, Joe Taylor had had another run-in with an Adobe youth, according to a confidential memo from Marian Webber, assistant director for secure care, to David Gaspar, then ADJC interim director.
According to the memo, the youth, Virgil, alleged the following:
"Superintendent Taylor came to his room and told his roommates to leave. He then began to question [Virgil] about tagging the walls. [Virgil] said that during the conversation Superintendent Taylor poked him in the chest, then slapped him on the forehead causing his head to hit the wall."
Taylor acknowledged coming in to speak to Virgil and asking his roommates to leave. He says he did at one point have his hand on Virgil's wrist, without pressure, but otherwise did not touch him. The health unit did not find bruising or other evidence of harm to Virgil.
But Frederico, a boy across the hall from Virgil, related the following: "A black officer was in [Virgil's] room. The black officer was observed hitting [Virgil] in the head while asking him why he filed a grievance. The black officer picked up [Virgil] by his shirt and threw him across the room."
Frederico subsequently gave ADJC a conflicting statement, Webber writes, and was later deported to Mexico. The grievance was considered resolved, although Virgil and Taylor never agreed.
Taylor has since been promoted to ADJC Assistant Director for Safe Schools -- just below the agency director -- and is rumored to be in line for the director's chair if David Gaspar were to leave.
As for Gaspar, he uses all the right buzz words, his critics report. But the director's utopian vision of ADJC as a national rehabilitative juvenile corrections model blurs when you see it in operation.
"My experience with Gaspar is that . . . what he talks about is all about doing the right thing by kids. And I think that he would truly like to believe that that is what they're doing day by day," says one ADJC employee, a highly educated supervisor with more than 12 years in the juvenile corrections business and three years with the department.
But the reality is that's not true, the employee says. He used to think that Gaspar just didn't know what was going on in his agency; he's since changed his mind.
"I think he has to be aware, I just think he doesn't know how to deal with it."
David Gaspar won't talk specifics about his agency, but he loves to describe his philosophy:
"To create in an organization a belief about that, that tomorrow ought to be better than today, today ought to be better than yesterday, is fundamental to a healthy organization. A lot of corrections institutions don't have those kinds of conversations. And I think this is about people caring about people. I think this is real. For these kids and these families, maybe their only hope is us," he says, sitting back at a conference table in his downtown Phoenix office.
"Dave Gaspar and his staff have really increased their professionalism and have turned the department around from what it was years ago. I don't think he and staff anymore see juvenile corrections as a warehouse for kids, but I believe they really have a vision to ensure that these kids get treatment, so they can be productive members of our society," he says.
Weisz and Gaspar both point to a 94-point performance-based standards plan ADJC uses to measure its performance and compare itself with other agencies nationwide. But they don't share any results of the plan and critics say the trouble with the standards plan is that it allows ADJC to judge itself, rather than submit to outside examination.
That outside examination is what's been missing since 1998.
While ADJC officials insist they follow the points of the order to this day, that's clearly not happening. And there's no way to force them to do so. The order was dismissed by the court with prejudice, meaning the case cannot be reopened.
One alternative: Find a case where a kid like Matthew Davey Johnson, the original plaintiff in the 1987 lawsuit, is being abused, and file a new lawsuit in federal court. Of course, even if successful, that would take years.
And Russ Van Vleet, the court monitor in the original Arizona lawsuit, warns that since that first case, the laws have been changed to make it much tougher to win such a case.
"We're actually in a worse position today than we've been in my entire career to move into institutions and do anything," he says.
Inside the state, options for increasing scrutiny are limited.
Unless kids have attentive parents or a private attorney, they're pretty much on their own once inside ADJC. There are no outside watchdog groups monitoring activities in the institution, and no federal oversight at the moment.
Most juvenile offenders have been represented by public defenders, who no longer have an affiliation with the child. Similarly, although county judges send kids to ADJC, they have no oversight once a juvenile is in the state's custody. That bothers Judge Portley, who observes that when, as a juvenile court judge, he sent a kid to residential treatment, he could order a hearing or report on the status of the case every 60 to 90 days. Not so with ADJC, except in very rare circumstances.
"There were some cases where I would have loved to have gotten a report in six to nine months, just to see how a kid was doing" at ADJC, he says.
One way to increase scrutiny would be to take the ADJC youth rights department outside of the agency, Portley says.
"It's a shame that they are internal. They really should have the freedom through the Department of Administration or [the state ombudsman's office] . . . to be youth advocates."
Weisz says he recently spoke to ADJC officials, and doesn't believe there are any problems; he notes that corrections officers recently received a raise.
But he vows that the governor's office will look into the information New Times has uncovered, and respond accordingly.
"While I think overall we're doing a good job to address the entire situation of juvenile justice and preserving the public safety and trying to address the treatment needs of our kids, if there are problems . . . one failure is one too many and we want to do everything we can," Weisz says.
"But I think people have to realize that we are getting these kids after society has failed them in every other way. Some of them are the worst of the worst."
That is not enough for some concerned ADJC employees, like the three-year supervisor watching the agency slide farther away from rehabilitation every day.
"I think a kid might potentially get killed. A kid might get seriously hurt," he says. "We are going to lose control of an institution because what we're doing is we're not treating kids, we're simply trying to keep a handle on behavior, kind of like the adult system does."
Steve Meissner wraps up his tour of Adobe and Black Canyon with a poignant anecdote about the late Richard Bilby, the U.S. District Court judge who oversaw the ADJC federal order. Shortly before the order expired, Bilby toured the Encanto unit -- ADJC's cottage devoted to mentally ill boys -- and, turning to line staff, told them, "You're doing the Lord's work."
"But not necessarily in the way God would," responds Jan Christian, who, as executive director of the task force that implemented the federal order, spent years in close contact with ADJC. She's had almost none since 1998, until reviewing information given to her by New Times for this story.
"They're playing God, there's no doubt about that," Christian says. She's more than disappointed in the ultimate outcome of years of work and millions of dollars.
"Nothing short of going out and closing those gates is going to change that institutional culture."
Read more stories in the Slammed special report.