See You in October

Administrators at a state youth detention facility plan to conduct mock interviews and practice inspections in preparation for a visit from federal investigators. And they'll have plenty of time to get ready, according to documents obtained by New Times. Minutes from the July 8 "Management Team" meeting at Catalina Mountain School in Tucson include an update on the investigation, which state officials learned about in late spring.

"As you go through your units and your work areas imagine you are the outsider coming in, and as first impressions do matter please ensure your areas are clean and free of clutter," the minutes say. "[Catalina Mountain Superintendent Vicky] Bradley will be asking a small group of people to practice going through as if they were the investigators, practice asking questions, so people get familiar with this."

The minutes say that Justice Department investigators could have arrived as early as the end of July, but according to a four-page document from Dan Weiss, a lawyer with the federal agency, to Arizona assistant attorney general Tom McLory, investigators are not scheduled to visit Catalina until October 21. They will also tour Adobe Mountain and Black Canyon schools beginning on October 1.

The Justice Department investigation comes after revelations of abusive treatment of kids incarcerated at the state's youth detention facilities.

Last year, more than 30 community leaders asked Governor Jane Dee Hull to create a task force to investigate conditions at the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, following a series of stories in New Times ("Slammed," July 5, 2001). The governor has yet to respond to leaders who signed the letter.

Barbara Cerepanya, a Phoenix attorney who has represented kids held by ADJC and one of those pushing the governor for action, says the amount of lead time the Justice Department is giving ADJC leaves too much room for the agency to hide real problems.

"I don't know why you would give notice that you're doing an investigation, and then not come to the facility to investigate for months. It would allow time for great mischief," she says.

Cerepanya and Jan Christian, the former executive director of the Governor's Select Commission and Task Force on Juvenile Corrections who headed the letter-writing group, say they are generally pleased with the scope of the federal investigation.

Earlier this year, Arizona officials said the investigation would focus only on use of force and education. But investigators have requested what will amount to thousands of pages of documents, also addressing: abuse and neglect of juveniles in the state's custody; solitary confinement; mechanical, chemical and physical restraints; medical treatment; and behavior management. Federal investigators have also requested detailed records on special education services offered by ADJC.

According to the memo, investigators have requested policies regarding the agency's grievance procedure, and also want to see all grievances filed by juveniles in 2002. Staff conduct is clearly another area of concern: Investigators have requested a list of all staff disciplined since 1997, including disciplinary actions taken in each case.

And investigators have requested "all reports, investigations and medical or institutional files relating to youth who have committed suicide between 1997 and 2002."

Two boys held at Adobe Mountain School hanged themselves earlier this year ("The Hanging," July 25). ADJC officials say those were the first deaths at a state juvenile detention facility in 14 years.

The team touring the facilities will include Paul DeMuro and C. Michael Nelson, identified as the "expert consultants."

"They've got the right guys. These really are top people in the country," says Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C. Soler says he has worked for many years with DeMuro. The Youth Law Center also investigates juvenile detention facilities.

Soler says it's common practice to warn facilities of inspections in advance.

"They always plan [tours] ahead of time. They never go in unannounced," he says.

As for the list of requested documents, Soler says, "It shows sincere concern about possible abuses."

Longtime observers of Arizona's juvenile corrections system like Cerepanya and Christian are skeptical that any lasting reform will result from the investigation. It's not enough to investigate, they say — someone has to be vigilant about follow-up.

In 1998, conditions began to deteriorate at ADJC facilities, after a federal court order monitoring the department was lifted. The court order came as a result of a 1987 class-action lawsuit, Johnson v. Upchurch, which stemmed from a case in which a boy was held in solitary confinement for several weeks. Similar situations had arisen in the ensuing four years, New Times reported in "Slammed," along with other abuses.

"No matter what happens, the worry always is that everything will change once they quit looking at the system," Cerepanya says. "History has shown that we're right to worry."

Russell Van Vleet, a national expert on juvenile corrections who served as a court monitor in the 1987 case and also signed Christian's letter, says that he, like Soler, is pleased to see that Paul DeMuro is investigating ADJC. In any case, Van Vleet says, one of the most important parts of the information-gathering process will be interviewing ADJC staff and youth.

ADJC officials are clearly aware of this, and as the Catalina Mountain meeting minutes show, are already micromanaging the situation. "One of the things Ms. Bradley wants to impress across the campus is that not everybody is an expert in all areas. If anyone pretends to be, this can make things more difficult."

And it can make it more difficult for ADJC to keep a lid on information it does not want revealed. But the federal guidelines appear to make the agency's job easier. A staff member at Adobe Mountain School contacted Weiss about a month ago, volunteering information about ADJC for the investigation. The staff member says Weiss said he could not interview a current ADJC employee without written permission from the agency.

"It's unfortunate that this is their policy because very few people (if any at all) will speak to them on the record," the staff member says.

Justice spokeswoman Kacey Stavropoulos had no comment on the way ADJC is preparing staff for the investigation or whether the Justice Department is severely limited in its access to ADJC employees.

Jan Christian asks, "If they can't talk to employees without permission of the state, what kind of investigation is it?"

And as for the mock interviews and practice inspections?

"What's always amazing in situations like this is that even when people are putting their best foot forward, serious problems are still easy to spot."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at