Allegheny County officials are questioning the future of the troubled Shuman Juvenile Detention Center after a critical report released last month and a state investigation into new allegations of abuse.
The county must submit a plan today to the state Department of Public Welfare explaining what has changed since police arrested a former worker in February on charges that he slammed a 16-year-old resident into a door frame. If it takes cues from a wider investigation by county manager William McKain that found evidence of favoritism, erratic discipline and financial irregularities, officials will have a lot to say.
"When you have guards that have been pushed to the point where they're sucker punching kids, something's not right," said county Councilman James Ellenbogen, chairman of the council's public safety committee. "They morphed themselves into a separate island that thinks they don't have to answer to anybody."
Mr. McKain's 10-page report calls out Shuman director William Simmons, by title if not by name. Under his administration, investigators were told, management handed out jobs without going through the county's human resources department, a violation of county policy. Former and current Shuman employees say Mr. Simmons and deputy director Lynette Drawn-Williamson surrounded themselves with friends and allies in upper management, tamping down dissent with rigid rules.
Hired in 2007 and given wide latitude to overhaul the failing facility, Mr. Simmons tightened discipline, which won him applause among county officials at the time. But former employees say his overhaul had two faces.
"The employees were being watched more than the juveniles," said child care worker Harry Mulder, who left in 2010. "But if they came in under Mr. Simmons' and Ms. Williamson's blessings, they could do no wrong."
Payroll problems plagued the department, with workers receiving pay without clocking in. The investigation also found issues with the Shuman Center Residents Fund, a collection for juvenile offenders that received donations from many Shuman employees.
Donation checks did not go to county coffers, but instead to the Rev. Floyd Palmer, the facility's chaplain and a part-time barber. Rev. Palmer said he deposited the money -- no more than $1,000 at any point, he said -- at a bank in Homewood and would withdraw it when ordered to buy rewards for residents.
Workers told Mr. McKain's staff they rarely saw any of the gifts supposedly bought with donation money. In response, all donations will now run through a county-supervised account, the county manager said.
But the meat of the report focused on animosity between managers and child care workers, where simmering enmity sharpened under Mr. Simmons. Workers told Mr. McKain's staff they didn't trust their managers, with supervisors replying that complaints mostly came from lazy employees.
It didn't help that the facility's security staff answered to Mr. Simmons, with internal investigations ultimately coming to his desk.
"There's a disconnect between staff and management," Mr. McKain said. "Effective leadership has to be above the fray. That's why I'm stepping in."
Neither Mr. Simmons nor Ms. Drawn-Williamson responded to requests for comment.
Per his plan, Mr. McKain will require Shuman to form an employee relations committee, whose first job will be conducting a facilitywide satisfaction survey. He also has asked the county controller to audit payroll records and will put security staff under the supervision of the county police.
He wouldn't discuss his plans for Mr. Simmons, saying he does not comment on personnel matters.
Officials with Service Employees International Union Local 668, the union that represents Shuman's child care workers, welcomed the investigation, saying they're finally getting attention from top county officials.
"I think that finally somebody is paying attention to what's really going on up there, and it's a long time coming," said Karen Knauss, a child care worker and union steward.
The union said it has a dozen official grievances outstanding against the facility, including one involving Ronald B. White, the former child care worker who was fired after allegedly assaulting a 16-year-old resident in January. Mr. White is the subject of a state investigation that's examining if the facility broke the terms of its license.
Police say Mr. White, 33, unexpectedly pushed the boy from behind into a metal door frame, drawing blood. Video surveillance recordings show him walking away, leaving the boy to be checked by another staff member, police said.
Mr. White told officers he was directing the boy to get back to his room. He was charged with simple assault and official oppression.
If Allegheny County doesn't show progress in fixing regulatory violations stemming from the incident, the facility could see its license downgraded, DPW spokeswoman Donna Morgan said. Mr. Smith, the union representative, said he believes Mr. White has been treated unfairly.
Even if the case is resolved favorably for the facility, Shuman's future is still uncertain. Mr. McKain writes about the need to "right-size" the facility, noting that average occupancy has dropped from 139 in 2008 to 80 in 2012. In an interview last week, he shied away from specifics, but noted whoever leads Shuman must be on board.
Change may come, but others are getting impatient. Mr. Ellenbogen says if he doesn't see improvement soon, he'll call Shuman's leaders to testify before council.
"The only reason I haven't opened up a hearing is that I'm giving [Mr. McKain] an opportunity to fix this," he said. "I don't like what I see here. If you're not going to fix it, I'm going to start subpoenaing people."
Andrew McGill: 412-263-1497 or firstname.lastname@example.org