Tipping Point: Inside the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center - KMSP-TV

Tipping Point: Inside the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

Any kid accused of a serious crime in Cook County is almost sure to set foot in the Juvenile Detention Center -- a place so bad for so long, that a federal judge appointed an outsider to run it six years ago as the result of a lawsuit.

A "patronage pit" is how Earl Dunlap describes the Juvenile Detention Center back in the day.

"There were a lot of staff here that were highly suspect and highly questionable," Dunlap recalls. "They didn't get here on their own, they got here through a political process in Cook County at the time.

Teresa Abreu now heads a new executive team at the facility everyone would like to see empty.

"We don't want a kid to touch the juvenile system, because when you touch this system there's an increased chance that they're gonna end up in the adult system and that's not good for anyone," Abreu explains.

The population is down at the center. On the day FOX 32 visited, there were about 250 youth there. It was built to house 450 and in the old days, there were more than 700 mattresses in day rooms and hallways.

It was a baby prison, even though back then--as now--most kids in the center are only accused.

"We have to remember that all the kids here for the most part are pre-adjudicated youth, so they're just charged with these crimes, they're not convicted of these crimes," says Abreu. "The average length of stay for kids here is about 21 days. So, you know, we have to kind of assess them while they're here, be able to do groups and do one-on-one counseling, some other things with them."

At this age, a temporary stay can have permanent effects.

"People just think they're mini adults, and they're not," Abreu says. "Their brain development isn't there, you know they haven't been taught some of these, the social things that maybe the majority of people have."

A strong focus on mental health is one of the major changes at the detention center. Research shows just seven days locked up can plunge a youth into clinical depression - and many are battling issues before they get here.

"A great number of our kids are substance abuse involved," Dr. Garlewski says. "A great many of them may have some personality disorders maybe victims of neglect or abuse, physical or verbal, them being victims in their neighborhood of violence."

With the correct approach, many of these at-risk youth are better off in the center than at home. The residents go to school every day with a Chicago Public School on site.

17-year-old Mario has been in detention for a year, awaiting trial on a murder charge--but he says he's learned something here.

"They keep you motivated instead of being negative all the time in a negative setting," Mario reflects. "All these young adults here, they have potential. They can give back to somebody else, even though they took something from someone or hurt someone."

What's going on inside these walls these days may seem a bit too soft when we want law and order outside, but, make no mistake, the tension is palpable.

The Rapid Response Team is called on every day.

"We have kids come straight off the street or right out of court here, with a lot of baggage, a lot of anger, it can be at any point, a dangerous situation at any point," William Steward explains.

It is the largest youth detention center in the country. Being too big is just one of the many design flaws.

"We had a kid within a matter of two minutes rip the whole room down," he adds.

The ceiling tiles are being replaced at a cost of millions. The doors to the cells have been re-designed, but there are no surveillance cameras. Having multiple floors makes moving residents from place to place a logistical nightmare. More than one observer has said the whole place should be torn down.

"This building is really not meant for what it's being used for," Abreu says of the center. "Ideally you want a setting that's a little more home like."

While the setting couldn't be more wrong, the programming and staffing standards are the envy of the youth corrections industry.

"The quality of staff that we have now is just night and day, it's not a guard-inmate mentality at all," she adds. "If we are not already the best, we are one of the best detention centers, that's out there."

But every success story proves how badly we've failed elsewhere.

"Instead of having the funding of putting a kid in here for $600 a day, is to have a better use of money by trying to get those resources out in the community to better service the kids," Abreu continues. "In recent times when there was the big push, you know, to kinda get hard on crime, we do see an increase in our population. I think we have to get to the bottom of why are they, why are more kids creating crimes, and be able to solve it at that level, so that they don't hit a place like this or so that they don't hit the Cook County Jail."

Imagine $600 a day being spent on education and intervention. Yet this seems to be what the public cries for when the streets run with blood.

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