Juvenile Injustice


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Lax oversight. Wasted grant money. Overmedication of kids. Sexual abuse. According to former probation officer Robert Billburg, these are problems plaguing key components of the county’s juvenile justice system—which has jurisdiction over 12,000 local minors. Billburg, who says he resigned under pressure in 1996, has had an ax to grind ever since—but the evidence is compelling. As San Diego Magazine began its investigation, the county’s chief probation officer abruptly announced his retirement. Here’s a distressing look inside an ailing—but critically important—public agency.

Robert Billburg’s softball players had game. “There were a handful of kids I thought had a chance to play college baseball,” says Billburg, who coached in East County in the late 1980s; his players were 12 to 15 years old. But he’s not telling stories today about the athletic scholarships they received, or how successful they became after baseball. The players on Billburg’s teams struck out—big time.

By his count, two went to prison for murder. Two others were murdered themselves in unrelated cases.

That’s an entire infield, lost.

Billburg wasn’t just a softball coach. He was a probation officer in San Diego County’s juvenile justice system. His players were all doing time at a juvenile ranch facility. When Billburg transferred to Juvenile Hall in the early 1990s, he still kept score. Following his players and others when they were released from custody became a body count.

“I quit counting at 50 kids I knew who were murdered,” Billburg says. “The first time it happened, when I actually knew a kid who was killed, that was a shock. I’d actually spent time with this kid.

“Then it got to the 10th one, and the 20th—something’s going on here. I start thinking, ‘Wow, this is big. A lot of the kids who are dying are actually good, decent kids, in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ I start to get angry.”

There are enough tears of anger, sadness and loss in the juvenile justice system to fill Mission Bay. Some of those tears belong to Billburg. Others come from the juveniles and their families, trapped in the tumble cycle of drugs and alcohol, sexual abuse and violence.

To reduce and even eliminate some of the dysfunction, the top administrators in juvenile justice say they have innovative intervention strategies and programs. They point to statistics and studies that show how successful they are.

But critics of the system have their own documents, which they say tell a different story. That version of how the system works—for juveniles, along with employees—is often hidden away in confidential personnel files and sealed court documents.

San Diego Magazine has uncovered a most disturbing secret: dozens of alleged sexual assaults on and by juveniles detained by the county, which has paid six-figure settlements in lawsuits involving those allegations. Other documents reveal gaps in mental health treatment and questionable use of grant money. And in a mid-May report, the San Diego County grand jury sharply criticized a probation department investigation at Juvenile Hall that resulted in the firing of 23 probation officers. The grand jury “found the investigation to be incomplete and flawed,” its own report says.

So there are two dramatically different accounts of the same system. That’s not so unusual, especially in disputes over public policy. What is so remarkable about this disagreement is how nasty it has become.

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