Teenage Wasteland

It's up to Governor Janet Napolitano to make sure history doesn't repeat itself — that is, boldly reform juvenile corrections. Or at least make sure someone's watching

That was reported in July 2001. Capozzi has since left the agency. She and Barbara Cerepanya, a longtime juvenile rights advocate and former public defender, wound up representing the family of Christopher Camacho, the first boy to commit suicide in 2002. Cerepanya says she's the one who got Capozzi her job as ombudsman. The director at the time, David Gaspar, had offered Cerepanya the job, but she refused (and suggested Capozzi) because she wanted autonomy.

"It will never serve its function. You will not allow it," she recalls saying to Gaspar at the time she turned him down.

Cerepanya says now that she was right (Capozzi's time at ADJC was reportedly very contentious). She laments the fact that ADJC still does not have an independent ombudsman. She also regrets not pushing harder, the first time around, for an independent oversight committee. Cerepanya served on the Upchurch vs. Johnson task force, created in the early 1990s to ensure appropriate reforms were taking place. She had no idea conditions had deteriorated in its wake, until New Times started asking questions in 2000.

Adobe Mountain school is more a prison than a rehabilitative setting.
Laura Segall
Adobe Mountain school is more a prison than a rehabilitative setting.
Roy Roman Jr., before he was sent to ADJC.
courtesy of the Roman family
Roy Roman Jr., before he was sent to ADJC.

She is not hopeful now. When told that the current task force visited Utah recently, to see that state's cutting-edge rehabilitative system, Cerepanya sighs over her lunch special at the Wild Thaiger restaurant on Central Avenue.

"We went to Utah," she says. It's true. Jan Christian, who headed the Upchurch task force, confirms that her group traveled to Utah and Colorado, to see those states' systems.

Nothing changed then, and Cerepanya fears nothing will change now.

She might be wrong. Mark Steward, who headed the Missouri Division of Youth Services, retired last year from the department after 35 years and started a consulting business to help other states create juvenile rehabilitative facilities like Missouri's. He's been to Arizona twice in the past two years and has been talking to Judge Ronan and others about recommendations to adopt Missouri's model.

When Steward took his agency's helm in 1988 (he'd joined in 1970 as a counselor), the first thing he did was call Russ Van Vleet. There was no pending litigation; Steward simply wanted an outside consultant to help him make things better. He was having overcrowding and staff problems.

Today, Missouri is a national model. The pictures a task force member brought back from a recent visit show sunny rooms with smiley-face sheets and kids playing band instruments. The idea, Steward says, is to give the kids love and treat them better than they've ever been treated. The agency's never had a suicide, which Steward attributes to higher staffing, a less restrictive environment (although there are still fences with locks), and a system that encourages the kids to watch out for one another.

"We went from the total corrections model, and we found out it really worked to treat kids the best they'd ever been treated," he says. "You've got one shot with these kids usually, and we said, 'Let's give them everything we can.'"

In so doing, Steward cut costs by eliminating some security staff.

He's currently working with Louisiana (once the worst juvenile corrections system in the nation) and Washington, D.C. (not far behind), and will likely bring on California as a client.

It's not always an easy sell. A visitor from San Jose remarked, "What are you gonna call it, 'Hug a Thug'?" Steward recalls.

True, he says, "You see more hugging going on than anything else." Counselors and kids are on a first-name basis; there is a lot of sharing and therapy.

But Steward says it's increased employee retention, a huge problem in Arizona. "The staff love it! It becomes a family-like environment. And we've got some tough kids, don't get me wrong."

Once they're out on the street, Steward says, the kids are warned, "Don't hug 'em and don't trust 'em!" Most, he adds, do very well back in the real world.

On a recent Tuesday morning, the razor wire on the top of the fence at Black Canyon, ADJC's school for girls, looks almost pretty against the huge white and gray clouds forming in the sky. A huge metal door clangs as it shuts behind a visitor, signaling that this is prison, despite the nice landscaping. A corrections officer checks in visitors; behind her, a small radio blares Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust."

Like the other ADJC facilities, Black Canyon's cells have been retrofitted to reduce suicide attempts. A more obvious change, since the new federal investigation, is the addition of a culinary school. At Adobe Mountain, the boys' school next door, there's now a large room devoted to vocational ed — the boys learn how to frame a door, wire electricity, and work on car engines.

The kids wear yellow shirts, khakis with elastic waists, and tennis shoes that close with Velcro. (Belts and shoelaces are hazardous.) Rows of boys march quietly across the grounds, heads bowed, hands behind their backs as though they were cuffed.

At Adobe Mountain, there is a new health unit — thanks to the state Legislature, and an impressive lobbying push based on not only the federal investigation but the new federal law requiring increased health privacy.

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