Report says Probation rife with problems

August 25, 2010 

In a searing critique, a top official of Los Angeles County’s Probation Department says the agency has been plagued by weak management, poor communication, entrenched perceptions of favoritism and staffers who would never have survived a rigorous background check.

“It appears that problems were ignored continuously and defective operations were allowed to ‘muddle by’ with little emphasis placed on getting back to the basics to become a high functioning organization,” Remington wrote.

Five months in the making, the report by the department’s current chief deputy, Cal Remington, provides a study in organizational dysfunction across multiple fronts, particularly in the Administrative Services Bureau, which he says affects every phase of the department. The bureau includes such responsibilities as internal affairs, budget and fiscal services and human resources.

Remington’s 67-page report—called “Back to the Basics: The Steps Required While Moving Forward”—was presented to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. It offers 131 recommendations to improve management, increase transparency and accountability, and improve services and staff morale while cutting improprieties and poor performance.

The supervisors mandated the report in March as the 6,100-person department, the nation’s largest, was being rocked by disclosures that, among other things, employees used county credit cards to buy electronics goods, that dozens of employees accused of misconduct escaped discipline because the investigations ran too long and that the department could not fully track $79 million allocated by the Board largely to hire personnel.

In an interview, Remington said the department already has jettisoned ineffective staffers from important middle and upper management positions “and replaced them with people who are competent.”

Remington’s proposed fixes range from sweeping strategic changes, such as developing new programs as alternatives to incarceration, to relatively quick fixes that include launching a department newsletter to boost morale. He said the department should also continue to build on a June report by the watchdog Office of Independent Review, which called for an overhaul of internal discipline.

In his report, Remington said he was surprised by the broad community interest among children’s advocates, parents, service providers and others in improving the department’s operations, only to be rebuffed by the organization. “One individual,” Remington said, “indicated that community groups have been knocking on Probation’s door for years, however, the Department would not let them in.”

That situation, he stressed, must be changed.

“The future focus of this Department clearly needs to be on community-based alternatives to incarceration; more programs focusing on families and programs that prepare juveniles and young adults to become productive citizens of the community,” Remington concluded. “This can best be accomplished by working with community-based organizations.”

Remington, a retired probation chief from Ventura County, was acting head of the department in March when he launched his study, serving until new Chief Probation Officer Donald Blevins arrived in April. He now serves as the department’s chief deputy.

He said there must be more transparency in promotions to end nepotism and cronyism that has led to a widespread “feeling that ‘it isn’t what you know, but who you know’” when it comes to promotions. Remington said managers complained to him that “unqualified candidates are promoted with systemic favoritism, nepotism, and chicanery.

That same attitude among staffers—a sense of being on the outside—extended to the way information has sometimes been conveyed in the department, Remington said, particularly when it comes to personnel issues. This, he said, has created a workplace where “rumors are prevalent and run rampant.”

He also had some harsh words for “a few” members of the department’s executive team. These individuals were described in interviews as “being rude and having abusive ways in dealing with subordinates.” These top-tier individuals also were described as “being involved with infighting and cliques that have been destructive.”

The report urges that all managers receive mandatory ethics training and calls for the creation of a succession plan that includes a “leadership academy” to groom staffers for promotion.

To improve future hiring, Remington said standards must be raised for background checks. He said that based on his review of disciplinary cases, some employees should have been “screened out at the background phase.” Unlike most departments that hire peace officers, he said, probation does not use a polygraph to screen applicants—a shortcoming he hopes will now be rectified.

He also called for a crackdown on “work-time abuse” by staffers who fail to put in a full 40-hour week for which they’re being paid. In the interview, Remington said the extent of this abuse remains unclear. “It’s a problem we still need to look at,” he said.

The department’s 16 juvenile camps, housing 1,300 clients, were another key target for reform. This area is particularly important because the camps are the subject of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which is monitoring, among other areas, allegations of child abuse and poor mental health treatment.

Remington said all but three camp directors were interviewed at length and appear, as a group, to be “capable of effectively managing” their responsibilities. The problem, Remington said, is that they’ve “been demoralized as their roles have been shifted from leaders to passive followers.” He said they “feel stripped of the authority to operate their camp or manage their staff” when their decisions are “rescinded without explanation” from higher-ups.

Remington said this problem can be quickly corrected by simply restoring authority to these managers.

To save money and improve services, Remington recommended moving the camps’ reception and assessment units from the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in the San Fernando Valley to Challenger Memorial Youth Center, a complex of probation camps in Lancaster.

Despite the deep troubles at Probation, not all of the news is bad, Remington said. Some reforms have already started, and many in the department want to improve. “People here are tired of reading about the ‘dysfunctional or beleaguered Probation Department’ and they want to make a change.”

Posted 8/25/10

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