Audit looks at NORCOR juvenile detention

File photo by Patrick Mulvihill

File photo by Patrick Mulvihill

This week an outside expert begins a policy and practice review of the juvenile detention facility, which came under intense criticism in December, causing other entities to stop sending kids here.

Since a harsh review by Disability Rights Oregon that found the facility had punitive rules and harmfully isolated kids, the facility has implemented numerous changes.

They include stopping a written orientation test, increasing visitation hours, increased opportunities for socialization, revised grievance and discipline policies, allowing kids to keep more property with them, and adding a treatment protocol for kids in detention.

‘You can ask any kid. It’s significantly different than what it was.’

— Amber DeGrange

They also added clocks and got rid of a rule that forbade youth from asking the time.

To regain the confidence of the Oregon Youth Authority, which quit sending kids there once the DRO report came out, the Northern Oregon Regional Corrections (NORCOR) facility jail board was encouraged to hire an outside expert.

In fact, the state was willing to pay $6,000 of the $13,176 cost.

“Everyone values NORCOR,” said Amber DeGrange, Sherman County juvenile director sitting on the jail board’s Feb. 15 meeting as the juvenile director alternate.

She encouraged the board to hire the expert firm, Mel Brown & Associates out of Texas, so the work could be finished.

DeGrange said the facility’s roughly $7,176 share of the cost was within the facility’s operations contingency budget.

“We don’t have enough trust built up in our partners,” she said, for any assurances of changes to just come from the facility itself.

“If the consultant can give a snapshot that the youth are safe, partners have committed that they will come back,” DeGrange said. They won’t come back until an outside expert deems it is safe, she said.

DeGrange said the facility was losing money as other entities stopped sending youth to NORCOR. The OYA and Umatilla and Crook counties have stopped sending youth to the facility.

On Feb. 27, criminal justice reform groups called for the establishment of outside reviews of juvenile facilities in Oregon. Adult facilities require such assessments, but not their juvenile counterparts.

The DRO report also called for such outside oversight.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has asked for a comprehensive review of Oregon’s juvenile justice system.

The regional jail did its own internal review in 2015 that found similar problems, including lack of documentation of how long youth are kept in their rooms.

Those recommendations were not acted on, and the same problems were found in the DRO report.

Sherman County Sheriff Brad Lohrey, representing sheriffs from the four member counties of the regional jail on the jail board, said he wanted the problems fixed before the consultant came in. He feared the jail would have to bring the consultant back once work was finished.

But DeGrange said all of the “top concerns” of DRO have been resolved. “You can ask any kid. It’s significantly different than what it was.”

Gone are a list of “do not” rules, such as “do not look around” and “do not ask the time.”

But DeGrange also cautioned against pushing for too much change, saying administrators could dump a bunch of training on staff and have them revolt, or not enforce rules to fidelity.

The audit by the expert will include a review of policies, procedures and the handbook before he arrives, and then he will conduct an on-site visit with interviews.

Audience member Tim Schechtel asked the board what could be done to not just fix what’s broken at the juvenile facility, but make it more attractive.

DeGrange said, “I’d say we are very attractive.” She added, “It’s exciting to make all these changes. It put the fire under us, but it created some needed change and growth.”

Jeff Justesen, manager of the juvenile detention facility, said one reason the DRO report was so “devastating” to juvenile system personnel was because the entities that send youth to the facility had been “pretty complimentary to us” regarding programming offerings.

And then “suddenly this report comes out and says it’s inhumane treatment,” Justesen said.

He said the report portrayed that programming wasn’t happening.

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