Dunlap pledges to reform Cook juvenile home

After working in the juvenile justice system for 40 years, Earl Dunlap had little difficulty identifying what was wrong with Cook County's home for troubled youth: Pretty much everything.

"This place is totally dysfunctional. It's not a reasonably acceptable environment to house kids," said Dunlap, who took over as the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center's interim director about a month ago.

Colleagues say Dunlap, who has worked in detention centers across the United States, is the right man for the job.

"Earl Dunlap does not suffer fools easily," says Paul DeMuro, who worked with Dunlap at a Washington, D.C. juvenile detention center.

Dunlap's appointment comes after years of court wrangling.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois sued Cook County over the facility's conditions and mismanagement in 1999.   Associate legal director Benjamin Wolf said public defenders representing juvenile detainees had been reporting horrifying conditions at the facility since as far back as the early 1990's.

The lawsuit alleged physical and sexual abuse of children by facility employees, filthy conditions, inadequate medical treatment, overcrowding, understaffing, and "chronic mismanagement".

Under a court-ordered settlement in 2002, Cook County officials agreed to develop a plan and a timetable for improving conditions at the center.

Even so, Wolf said, "the place remained violent, filthy, and poorly managed."

Convinced that Cook County was incapable of properly running the facility, the ACLU asked the court to appoint an administrator.

A judge chose Dunlap, the executive director of the National Juvenile Detention Association and chief executive of the National Partnership for Juvenile Service.

Dunlap lives in downstate Effingham with his wife, a nurse practitioner.  He has two grown sons,  neither of whom works in juvenile justice. 

Dunlap has spent his entire career in the juvenile justice system. He says his decision to work with children was influenced by his mother, who was a teacher. He took a student teaching job at a juvenile center while earning degrees in social science and education at Siena Heights College in Adrian, Mich.

In 1967 he took a job as a probation officer earning $6,800 a year. For extra income, he also began working at a youth home for $2.10 an hour.

Dunlap says he works in a "tough" but fulfilling field.

"It's a career filled with twists and turns. I'm in the position of being an agent of change…and improving the lives of kids."

At TJDC, Dunlap says, the changes have to start at the top.

"It take two things to bring about change in a system," he said. "Empowerment and leadership."

"The finger has been pointed at the so-called staff," he said, "but really the problem is really that there has been no competent leadership. You can't blame people who have had no guidance," he said.

Dunlap says it's important to understand what juvenile detention is and what it isn't.

"Juvenile detention is an extension of the court. [It's purpose] is providing a safe, secure and humane environment - a  neutral zone while their cases are under review. It's not a friend of law enforcement or the prosecutors."

David Roush, director of the National Juvenile Detention Association, who has collaborated with Dunlap on publications including "Crowding in Juvenile Detention: A Problem Solving Approach," says Dunlap's broad range of experience is one of his biggest assets.

Roush said Dunlap is skilled at reading people and organizations and won't hold back when it comes to identifying flaws. "Earl is remarkably candid in his assessment of things," said Roush. "Honesty has served him well."

Dunlap says TJDC will require more than reform.

"It has to be reconstructed," he said. His first goals are  reorganization and safety.

Dunlap says the facility needs a bigger, more professional and better trained staff before its administration can be returned to Cook County.

"Ultimately, this place has to be run by a professional and not someone who's been thrown a political bone," he said.

Wolf is optimistic.

"We're excited to have him out there with the authority to change things," he said. Wolf said for too long the facility suffered under a system of revolving political appointments.

Both Dunlap and Wolf say it will be two years before the center is ready to be turned over.

That won't happen, Dunlap says, until he is sure "we're doing the right thing by kids."