Shuman's troubles: The county must fix the place once and for all

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The top two administrators at Shuman Juvenile Detention Center are serving suspensions amid allegations that a guard assaulted a 16-year-old resident, but that discipline won't be enough to fix everything that's failing at the troubled facility.

A recently completed investigation by Allegheny County Manager William McKain, begun last summer after widespread complaints about Shuman's management team, paints a very unflattering portrait of operations under Shuman director William "Jack" Simmons and deputy director Lynette Drawn-Williamson.

Among other things, the report says Shuman's managers don't trust the workers, and the feeling is mutual. Hiring circumvents customary practices with no county oversight. Time sheets are out of whack with the amount of money workers are paid. Employees question whether a fund that solicits donations to help residents is being used properly. And, even though the average daily population at Shuman has dropped from 139 in 2008 to 80 last year, there was no corresponding decrease in costs or personnel.

Those all are serious matters, and that's on top of the important question raised by the incident involving former child care worker Ronald B. White, who was accused of slamming a youth's head into a metal door frame in January. Is Shuman a safe place for workers and residents?

The state Department of Public Welfare demanded an explanation of why it took Shuman officials four days to report the assault, which was videotaped. Shuman's response first says officials initially thought the incident was an accident. It goes on to propose more staff training as a corrective action, a remedy that is not sufficiently different from promises that have been made repeatedly in response to similar occurrences in the past.

Mr. McKain's recommendations for Shuman are more far-reaching. Some already have been implemented -- guards now report to the county police instead of Mr. Simmons and an internal audit of the payroll system and the residents' fund are under way. In addition, the state probably will have more to say as a result of the January assault. And Kathryn M. Hens-Greco, administrative judge of Common Pleas Court's juvenile division, has plans for an extensive investigation by a 23-member team of county officials and outside representatives.

These are important steps that must be taken, the sooner the better, to get Shuman back on track.

Managing a facility that provides housing, educational services and social and emotional development training for a tough group of teenagers always will be difficult. That doesn't mean it is impossible, and an in-house attitude that serious problems are an inevitable consequence is nothing more than an excuse for doing a poor job.

That would be unacceptable in a prison for adult offenders and it is probably more unacceptable in a facility for young people.

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