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

ADJC has been pretty good at getting money from the Legislature to change the physical environment at its schools, but "school" is still a hopeful euphemism. Academics have improved, and a teacher who used to be very critical of the administration praises Michael Branham for getting involved, visiting classrooms, making sure security staff are there to help teachers. ADJC is now in compliance with special education laws; about 45 percent of the kids in custody qualify for special ed, a staggering figure requiring a lot of extra work.

But still, Adobe Mountain is no school. It is a prison. And nowhere is that more obvious than in the housing facilities. Armando Gomez, who has worked for the agency for 17 years, starting as a youth corrections officer, is now superintendent of Adobe Mountain. He shows off "January," a housing unit that has just been renovated to comply with the call for suicide-proofing and increased safety measures.

Gomez points to cameras that have been placed in the ceiling throughout the facility (the bathrooms are a problem; you can't monitor them, because of privacy) and walks into a tiny cell. It is as harsh as any prison, with fluorescent lights, linoleum, fresh white paint on the cinderblock walls and pine-green metal plates serving as bunk beds. Kids will move back into January in a few days, Gomez says, and his renovation project will be close to done.

Barbara Cerepanya says outside oversight of ADJC is a must.
Barbara Cerepanya says outside oversight of ADJC is a must.

There is still work to do. The staff to kid ratio at Adobe Mountain is still 1 to 24 at night. The department needs to get to 1 to 12. Gomez insists exclusion (the locking of kids in their cells) is no longer used, but Russ Van Vleet, one of the federal monitors, points out that in their most recent report, the monitors observed that kids are still sometimes locked in their cells as punishment. (Two of the three boys who hanged themselves at Adobe Mountain did so while in exclusion.)

When asked how this federal investigation has affected Adobe Mountain, Gomez says it's really just "fine-tuning" what was learned from Upchurch vs. Johnson. That is troubling, if you've read the list of violations detailed in the 2004 federal investigation — many of them at Adobe Mountain, addressing issues like a severe lack of services for seriously mentally ill children.

Gomez emphasizes that, this time, it's really been about upgrading physical properties.

ADJC Director Michael Branham admits it's much more. Armed with a venti Starbucks and speaking from prepared talking points during the brief interview he granted New Times, he gives a soliloquy about how the culture is changing at ADJC, and how this time, the changes will be permanent.

But Russ Van Vleet isn't so sure. And Judge Ronan, who chairs the current task force, has been listening to Van Vleet.

Ronan and the task force are submitting their recommendations about a permanent oversight committee to the governor within the next two weeks, and plan to make broader recommendations — maybe suggesting the Missouri model — early in 2007.

"We had this discussion with Director Branham in the room, and a number of us said this is absolutely no reflection on your leadership or what you've done. If there was some way to guarantee that he would be there forever, we probably wouldn't need an oversight committee.

"But things change," Ronan says. "Administrations change."

Clarification
The November 2, 2006, story "Teenage Wasteland" should have reported that Barbara Cerepanya and Joel Robbins represented the Camacho family. Also, Barbara Cerepanya chose Terri Capozzi for the ADJC job of Youth Rights Specialist only after Capozzi applied for the job. Capozzi and Cerepanya did not know one another prior to that. Cerepanya asked then-director David Gaspar to create a position for an ombudsman who would have outside authority to assist parents in finding lawyers to sue the department if it was not responsive to legitimate concerns. Gaspar did not create the position; it was never created.

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