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More than half of youths in L.A. County juvenile detention facilities were in quarantine this week

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More than half of the youths in L.A. County’s juvenile detention facilities were in quarantine this week — a move that officials say was done out of an abundance of caution after a surge in positive cases of the coronavirus among staff.

According to the department’s Dec. 8 daily report on coronavirus in its facilities, 272 of its 521 youths in juvenile halls and camps were in quarantine due to possible exposure to COVID-19. Ten youths were also in isolation after testing positive.

During a Probation Commission meeting Thursday, Tom Faust, acting chief deputy of juvenile services, said that like Los Angeles County, which has seen a rapid rise in cases, there’s been a spike of positive tests among staff. The quarantines, he said, are based on a staff member testing positive “much more so than a youth.”

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As of Thursday morning, about 35 probation officers from the juvenile detention facilities were in isolation because of positive results on COVID-19 tests. Juvenile Court Health Services has taken the approach of placing an entire building in quarantine even if staff worked in only one area of the living quarters.

Faust said that within the last 30 days, officials had re-tested about 100 youths at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, where various units have been on quarantine. Three tested positive for COVID-19.

“We want to make sure that in an abundance of caution that we’re going to quarantine those units any time we have any possibility where there might have been some exposure,” he said.

But quarantine, which lasts 14 days after the last date of exposure, precludes in-person family visits and has sometimes resulted in the cancellation of virtual social programming. Juvenile justice advocates have expressed concerns about how the measures may further isolate youths and affect their mental health.

“This causes incredible distress and further trauma to kids who are already separated from their families,” said Brooke Harris, a managing attorney at Loyola Law School’s Juvenile Justice Clinic. “Quarantine is becoming routine, and my clients have been in quarantine on multiple occasions in multiple facilities over the recent months.”

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All youths are tested for COVID-19 when they enter probation facilities and they remain separated from others until they receive the results. If there is a confirmed exposure, an entire potentially affected housing unit is placed on quarantine for 14 days. Even with a negative test result, the youths remain in quarantine.

As of Thursday, 108 youths in L.A. County juvenile detention facilities had tested positive for the virus, and of those, 70 had tested positive upon admission to probation facilities. As of that date as well, 305 probation department employees and contract staff had tested positive — with 147 of them working in juvenile detention facilities.

According to the department, quarantined youths have received additional access to phone calls and virtual visits. Officials said that all youths under quarantine have full programming and that they still participate in group activities but don’t interact with youths from outside of their units.

During Thursday’s meeting, Probation Commissioner Cyn Yamashiro asked for a “granular understanding” of what quarantine physically looks like.

“It’s not isolation,” Faust responded, while another official explained that youths are still able to go outside, as long as they stay with the peers in their unit and wear masks.

But several attorneys representing youths in the juvenile facilities say that those in quarantine have largely been confined to their living facilities. And staff that provide programming say that youths have sometimes lost access to virtual classes.

Jerod Gunsberg, an attorney who often defends juveniles, said that a 17-year-old client told him last week that he had been in his unit at a juvenile hall almost 24 hours a day while in quarantine.

“He was miserable — absolutely miserable,” said Gunsberg. “He said he was mostly in his room.”

Gunsberg said that although he was understanding of the precautions the Probation Department has been taking, a preferable alternative should be regular testing of staff.

“Quarantining kids for weeks on end seems like it should be the last resort,” he said.

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Elida Ledesma, the executive director of the Arts for Healing and Justice Network, which has been running virtual arts programming in juvenile detention facilities for several hundred youths every week, said that its workshops have been operating in a “stop and go” fashion since March because of quarantines.

Youths in the camps, she said, will congregate in a room and get a virtual lesson in drawing or music over a video conference. If a unit is in quarantine, she said, staff might be reassigned to a different one or officials “will cancel all programming until further notice.”

“I think it has added an extra layer of being really isolated,” she said.

Marjan Goudarzi, the director of enrichment programs with New Earth, another organization that has been providing virtual arts programming, said there have been only a few instances in which staff have been able to teach during a quarantine. It seems to correlate, she said, with teachers who advocate strongly to get laptops into living quarters.

“It is more common that when the students are in quarantine, we don’t teach,” she said. “It makes no sense that kids have no access to their classes just because they are quarantined in their cottages when even if they are in their classrooms the teachers aren’t present anyway.”

In a statement, the department said that the L.A. County Office of Education had recently expanded wireless networks at housing units in Central Juvenile Hall and at Nidorf Juvenile Hall. Officials said the county has also prepared carts with individualized laptops, so that if students cannot go to school because of a quarantine the laptops are delivered to their units for remote education.

The juvenile detention population has declined substantially during the pandemic, from 840 on March 2 to 514 on Thursday. Early on, juvenile justice advocates pushed for widespread release of juveniles, expressing concern that social distancing was not being enforced and that youths were being housed in crowded dormitory settings.

Ricardo Garcia, the county’s top public defender, said that attorneys can communicate with juveniles in quarantine, who can still participate in virtual court hearings. Since learning of the high number of youths in quarantine, he said his attorneys have made a more pronounced effort to expedite the release of youths.

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Commissioners on Thursday expressed concern about probation staff who may be exposed to the virus, with one suggesting that staff be tested regularly. They addressed a Dec. 2 letter from Faust, in which he answered questions from the commission about how the virus was being handled.

According to the letter, staff are trained to wear masks and the department conducts contact tracing after a positive test. Faust wrote that staff are notified when they have been exposed to someone who had tested positive but that not every staff member who comes into contact with a positive case must quarantine.

Because of “critical staffing needs,” if asymptomatic, staff at the juvenile halls and camps may continue to work with protective equipment and enhanced instruction to self-monitor, Faust wrote, adding that the department was following guidance from county health agencies.

“Nervous. Concerned for my safety,” one adult probation officer, who requested anonymity to be able to speak freely about the department, said of that protocol.

He said officers have criticized the department for failing to adequately conduct contact tracing and notify staff if they have been exposed to the virus.

“That’s been one of the pressing concerns,” he said. “Possible exposure, lack of contact tracing, lack of being notified if a minor had tested positive.”

Some attorneys also worry about enforcement of social distancing and other precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

Attorney Ed Geil, who has an 18-year-old client at Nidorf Juvenile Hall, said the teen’s unit is one of many under quarantine and that youths still wind up in clusters despite public health warnings.

“He says they have masks. They have soap and water, but it’s impossible to maintain social distancing,” Geil said.

Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.

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