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This Kennedy School of Government case study has been distributed on The Electronic Hallway system under a cooperative agreement between the Public Service Curriculum Exchange and the Kennedy School of Government Case Program, Harvard University. This case, written by Pamela Varley with direction from Arnold Howitt, was abridged by Olivia Golden and Professor Mark Moore for use at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Funds for development of the case were provided by the Ford Foundation. (0790)
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Ellen Schall and the Department of Juvenile Justice
In January of 1983, Ellen Schall was appointed commissioner of an agency in a state of
upheaval. New York City’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) had been created in 1979 to
detain seven- to fifteen-year-old children between arrest and adjudication.1 Six weeks before
Schall’s appointment, the previous DJJ commissioner—Paul Strasburg—had locked horns
with Mayor Edward Koch over the size and location of a proposed new detention facility. In
the final showdown, Strasburg and several of his top administrators had departed abruptly
from the agency and Koch had withdrawn the plan. Both in DJJ and in City Hall, the episode
had left bitter feelings. Schall braced herself for a rocky start.
Even apart from the recent ruction, the new commissioner, who had worked in city
government five years, knew that running DJJ would be a challenge. To begin with, the
agency’s job was inherently difficult. Each year, about 12,000 juvenile arrests were made in
New York City, and a third of those arrested were placed in DJJ’s custody. Of these youths, a
third had been accused of violent felony offenses and more than half were themselves
reported victims of abuse or neglect. They were overwhelmingly poor and male, and 94
percent were either black or Hispanic. Schall knew the 600-person department was having
significant problems at the operational level. Most of DJJ’s charges were held in a 25-year-old
secure detention facility, Spofford Juvenile Center, located in an industrial section of the
South Bronx. Spofford was notoriously dilapidated and tense, with frequent outbreaks of
violence among the children and increasing allegations from children of abuse by staff
workers. Younger children and those charged with less serious crimes were held in the
agency’s “non-secure” detention (NSD) facilities—a network of 48 beds in group and foster
homes—which were plagued by a high abscond rate: 20 percent of the children assigned to
1 The New York City Charter spelled out two major duties for DJJ: to “operate secure or non-secure facilities for the temporary care and maintenance away from their homes of children held for or at the direction of” the courts pending disposition of their cases or transfer to facilities to which placed or sentenced by the courts; also, to “develop,
conduct, and supervise programs, including diversion and Aftercare, for previously detained juveniles for the prevention of juvenile delinquency and juvenile crime.” When Schall arrived at the agency, the Aftercare program had been funded and designed but not yet implemented.
Ellen Schall and the Department of Juvenile Justice
2 NSD “ran” before their cases were heard in court. In addition, Court Services, the division
which shuttled the young residents back and forth between the detention facilities and 15
borough-based courts, had a reputation for delivering the children to court too late for their
scheduled hearings.
During the first months of her administration, Schall knew that—in addition to getting
the lay of the land—she would need to quickly fill several key senior staff vacancies and come
up with a strategy to address some of the agency’s operational woes.
Ellen Schall
The Mayor’s Office of Operations, headed by Deputy Mayor Nat Leventhal, approached Schall about the position of DJJ commissioner shortly after Strasburg’s departure. At the time, Schall was working as deputy commissioner in the city’s Deparment of Corrections—a position she had held for three years—overseeing program services and legal policy.
In many ways, Schall’s background made her a natural choice for the job. Born in 1947 in Stuyvesant Town, a moderate-income Manhattan housing project, Schall studied sociology and anthropology at Swarthmore College in the sixties, graduated cum laude from the New York University School of Law in 1972, and worked for six years as a legal aid lawyer. In 1978,
Deputy Mayor Herbert Sturz hired her as a staff analyst in his Office of Criminal Justice and,
in an administrative shuffle a few months later, Schall became associate coordinator of the
office. In this capacity, she helped write a report on problems at Spofford and recommended
a number of changes, including replacement of Spofford with several decentralized 20-bed
facilities. Schall also participated in planning for a new juvenile detention agency in the city—DJJ—which was officially created July 1, 1979. That same year, Schall was offered the job of deputy commissioner in the city Corrections Department, but was initially dubious about the
idea: I said, “You have the wrong person. I’m a legal aid lawyer. I don’t think so many people should be in jail.” And they said, “No, no, we want somebody like you.
We want a reformer in our midst.” I really had a struggle over whether to take it, because I thought—this has nothing to do with my values. Would my friends talk to me? Was I selling out? I say this as a joke, but—who would I eat lunch with? Everybody wore ankle holsters.
But when approached about the DJJ post three years later, Schall had no such qualms: “The minute I was asked whether I was interested, I was,” she says. “It felt perfect for me. I’d get to run my thing. I cared about young people and the criminal justice system.” Ellen Schall and the Department of Juvenile Justice
3 The Strasburg Brouhaha
At the same time, Schall was aware that she was walking into a difficult situation. Strasburg, a child welfare advocate who had been affiliated with the Ford Foundation and written a book called Violent Delinquents, had served as DJJ’s commissioner since the agency’s creation. His main goal had been to close Spofford and replace the detention center with four smaller facilities, one in each of the boroughs of New York City except Staten Island, an area from which few of DJJ’s charges came. Smaller, decentralized facilities, Strasburg believed, would be less frightening and institutional, would allow for more individual treatment of the children, and would make it easier for family members to visit the children in custody. Ben Jones, who served as Strasburg’s executive assistant, says: Operational decisions concerning changes in the
physical plant were filtered through—how will this affect the decision to leave Spofford? Issues like the location of the property storage room on this floor versus that floor, or if I invest this much money, how is it going to affect the people-who-will-be-making-thedecision’s
view of whether we should get out of Spofford or not?
Despite the mayor’s apparent interest in Strasburg’s four-center plan—the commissioner was unable to advance the project. In the meantime, a City Hall planner came up with the idea of siting a new 156-bed juvenile facility atop a 500-cell adult jail which was being constructed on White Street at the edge of Chinatown. Strasburg “signed off” on this idea in the mayor’s office, apparently believing that the plan had little chance of being implemented. The proposal moved forward, however, and drew a strong negative reaction from Strasburg’s allies in the child advocacy community who objected to detaining adults and children at the same site. Strasburg reportedly had his own qualms about the project as well, and found himself caught in an awkward tug of war with the mayor. He ultimately refused to support the plan at a November 1982 Board of Estimate hearing—a move that was seen as a public rebuff to the mayor. “So it was on that day that he quit and then was fired,” Schall says. Embarrassed and angry, the mayor subsequently withdrew the plan from the board’s consideration.
A Context of Antagonism
The White Street fiasco had arisen in the context of generally poor relations between DJJ and City Hall.2 Administrators at DJJ regarded staff in City Hall oversight agencies as 2 DJJ was one of 33 mayoral agencies, which meant that it reported directly to the mayor and also to three oversight agencies: The Mayor’s Office of Operations, which was concerned with project management and productivity improvement; the Office of Management and Budget, which dealt with fiscal matters; and the Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator, which handled special projects and coordinated relationships among the police, corrections, juvenile justice and probation departments as well as the court system. In addition, DJJ worked with two advisory
boards. The DJJ Advisory Board consisted of 11 citizens appointed by the mayor (five upon recommendation of Ellen Schall and the Department of Juvenile Justice
4 political operators or bureaucrats with little understanding of life in the trenches. The
oversight staff regarded DJJ administrators as defensive and uncooperative at best—incompetent at worst. “DJJ didn’t have a very good reputation,” Schall says: All your friends in city government who had anything to do with DJJ had a complaint: hard to deal with, pie in the sky, not responsive, ivory tower. My own sense about Paul is that he was terribly committed,
ideologically in sync with what we believe now, but [with] little interest in management.3
Kathleen Feely, an analyst in the Mayor’s Office of Operations at the time, recalls:
The agency had really been estranged from City Hall—had a view of itself as sort of separate and on some levels, better than having to politick. … I’m not talking about Democratic Party politics, but working with City Hall, telling Budget what’s going on, telling the
mayor’s office what’s going on. If you called with questions, they would act like it was none of your business.
Thus for the mayor and his City Hall staff, the Strasburg “defection” represented the
last straw. After Strasburg left, DJJ’s assistant commissioner for planning was fired at the
direction of City Hall, and in December, the mayor announced that he was putting on hold all
plans to construct a new juvenile facility. Instead, he said, he might consider putting several
million dollars into repairs of Spofford. Says Schall: There was definitely a lot of pique. One of his thoughts was—“They [the advocates] like Spofford? They think Spofford would be better? Then we’ll fix it up.”
Schall’s Appointment
At City Hall, the decision to appoint Schall as commissioner was made swiftly, and her mandate was very general: “The mayor said two things to me: ‘Don’t let any of them get out,’ and ‘Do as much as you can for them,’” she says. In accepting the job, Schall asked Koch for one thing: permission to upgrade the salary of the executive director of Spofford from $32,000 to $45,000. He agreed. the City Council) and met quarterly. The board made recommendations to the commissioner and reported annually to the mayor. The Ombudsman Review Board oversaw the activities of the staff ombudsman at Spofford, who mediated disputes between children and staff. (Child abuse allegations were handled through a separate procedure involving a formal investigation and findings.) DJJ was also regulated by the state Division for Youth (DFY), which
reimbursed 50 percent of the agency’s costs. (DFY did not either regulate or contribute funding toward the Aftercare program, however, which was first funded by a grant from the Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and later funded by the city.) 3 This quote comes from an in-house taped interview conducted by Bruce Cory. Ellen Schall and the Department of Juvenile Justice Schall had some general thoughts about her goals as DJJ commissioner. She knew, for instance, that she wanted to do things differently than Strasburg had: “Paul had gotten
stymied on his building agenda,” she says. “When that fell apart, he had nothing to show for
his tenure really. Not nothing, but not enough.”
I knew that I had to do something with the Spofford Replacement Project. I knew that we had to fix a lot of problems. And I knew that it wouldn’t be enough to figure out how to run a better jail—that I wanted to do something more for kids than just run a more decent place. But I didn’t have the vaguest idea what that was.
Reaction to Schall’s Appointment
From the child advocacy community, news of Schall’s appointment drew a mixed
reaction. On the one hand, says Schall, “All these juvenile justice groups thought [Strasburg]
was a hero.” They had mobilized to fight this [White Street] plan, and they won when the plan got withdrawn from the Board of Estimate. And then the mayor fires Paul, and they’re disgusted. [So] they were sort of on the warpath.
On the other hand, Schall—with her background in legal aid—had some built-in credibility with the advocates: “I think people had some way of checking me out, so they were prepared for me to be OK, but I had to prove myself.” Within the administrative ranks of DJJ, however, news of Schall’s appointment drew a
much more negative reaction. Among his central administrative staff, Strasburg had been a
very popular leader, and his precipitous departure was deeply resented. Says Jones, “The
mayor had, I think in the opinion of many of us, screwed this agency. And she was the
mayor’s choice, so what was she going to be like?” In addition, because Schall came directly
from a position in Corrections rather than one in social service or child advocacy work, her
appointment aggravated an already-strong sense of ill ease within DJJ about changes in the
orientation of the agency.
The agency’s recent sea change. Many of DJJ’s staff—both at Spofford and in the nonsecure
facilities—had taken their jobs years earlier in the hope of helping troubled children.
Before 1979, many of the children held in these facilities were not “criminal” at all, but were
status offenders4—kids who had run away or skipped school, for instance. They were housed
together with children who had committed serious offenses. “For awhile, there was [a wide
variety of kids] in Spofford, and people were escaping—walking out the doors,” says Schall.
4 Status offenders are juveniles who are “ungovernable,” doing things—like running away from home—that are issues
only for juveniles.
Ellen Schall and the Department of Juvenile Justice
“Custody wasn’t the thing.” In fact, in the late seventies Spofford—with two or three children
escaping each week—was nicknamed “the sieve.” During Strasburg’s tenure, security had
improved and escapes had been sharply curtailed.
Meanwhile public concern over juvenile crime had escalated and public opinion
about juvenile delinquents was hardening. In 1978, the ghoulish case of a 15-year-old who
received a detention sentence of only a few months after committing murder—reportedly
with a smile on his face—aroused citizen outrage. That same year, the legislature adopted
New York’s Juvenile Offender Act, which required the adjudication of the most serious
juvenile offenders5—about a third of children admitted to Spofford—in the adult court
system, where they were potentially subject to longer pre-trial detention, more severe
sentences, and permanent criminal records.
Many members of the staff were uncomfortable with these assorted shifts. When they
had taken their jobs, they thought of themselves as social workers. Now the powers-that-be
thought of them as jail guards. Says Schall:
It really matters to your sense of your job whether
you’re taking care of a child with needs or you’re
taking care of a sociopath—a maniac murderer who’s
going to do 50 years. Those are two very different sets
of clients.
Jones agrees: “I had been a trainer in the agency, and I knew how line staff felt,
because I had been privy to their angst, if you will. You couldn’t get past anything [without
being] confronted by this dilemma.”
Some staff members were afraid that Schall, coming from the Corrections
Department, would move the agency even farther away from a social service orientation. A
few worried that Schall would try to place DJJ under the control of the Corrections
Department. “She hadn’t been a warden at one of the jails, but there was a real concern about
the fact that Ellen came from the Department of Corrections, because the custody-[or]-care
issue was at that point a real issue—a kind of dichotomy,” says Jones.
Schall’s Arrival
To some extent, Schall was aware of these tensions, and anticipated a certain amount
of hostility from the staff at DJJ. She says:
I knew there’d be a worry about the Corrections thing,
but I figured it would be easily dissipated when people
figured out that I was more a legal aid lawyer than I
was a Corrections bureaucrat. I knew there’d be
something about my sex and age—I was 36.
But the level of the hostility took her aback:
5 The law defined juvenile offenders as 13-year-olds accused of murder and 14- or 15- year-olds who committed any
of 15 serious felonies including homicide, rape, and assault.
Ellen Schall and the Department of Juvenile Justice
The downtown staff just adored [Paul], and I was a
poor substitute. So people would say things to me like,
“Why don’t you smile and say ‘hello’ like Paul did?”
People would notice the most peculiar things about
me, like, “How come you don’t go to the bathroom
more?” I encountered such hostility. [You know,
you’d] walk in and you’d say to somebody, “Do you
have the time?” and they’d say, “Yes,” and then you’d
have to say, “What time is it?”
I didn’t understand what all the hostility was about. I
just kept looking at myself: I’m a reasonably nice
person. What’s going on here? What does everybody
want from me?
Schall Surveys the Scene
Schall quickly realized that—in addition to the hostility directed at her—there were
several overlapping areas of tension in the agency.
Uptown/downtown split. For one, there was a major rift between the central
administration office downtown, with a staff of 70, and the 540 employees working in the
field—“uptown”—at Spofford (with a staff of 440), NSD (30) and Court Services (70). (See
organizational chart.) To those in the field, the central administrative staff was seen as remote,
transient, unhelpful, and too closely allied with the white city government machine; the
central administrators questioned the dedication and competence of many of the staff who
delivered direct services.
Racial and class tension. Compounding the uptown/downtown split at DJJ was an
overlay of racial and class tension. Of the 4000 children who were detained each year by DJJ,
most were black or Hispanic and came from troubled backgrounds.6
In addition, the line staff was 90 percent black and Hispanic (74 percent black and 16
percent Hispanic). Many did not have education beyond high school (the job qualifications for
a juvenile counselor were a high school diploma and four years of relevant experience or a
college diploma and one year of experience). The average entry-level salary of juvenile
counselors was about $17,000, several thousand dollars below the salary of adult-prison
guards, which was a source of resentment. The DJJ staff was represented by some 13 unions,
although one was bigger and more influential than the rest: Juvenile Center Employees,
District 37, Local 1457, which represented juvenile counselors at Spofford.
6 In 1986, DJJ would compile statistical information about the children that confirmed this assessment: 94 percent
were black or Hispanic, half were reported victims of abuse or neglect or had been living in foster homes, 80 percent
were born to women who had their first children as teenagers, 75 percent read below the seventh grade level, 49
percent had been classified “handicapped” or had been placed in special education programs, 90 percent were male,
and overwhelmingly, they were poor.
Ellen Schall and the Department of Juvenile Justice
While the staff and largest bargaining unit at DJJ were overwhelmingly black, half of
the 20 top administrators at DJJ were white and the two commissioners—Strasburg and now
Schall—had both been white. Some Spofford staff derisively referred to the detention center
as “the country club.” Others called it “the plantation.” “Race is a very powerful issue in this
organization,” says Schall.
Turf wars between facilities. There was also tension between the two main operating
branches of the agency: Spofford and NSD. When created in the mid seventies, NSD’s staff
had been handpicked from departments throughout the city’s massive Human Resources
Administration (HRA). NSD employees felt that becoming part of DJJ represented both a loss
of stature and a loss of promotional opportunities under the Civil Service system. Previously,
they had enjoyed seniority advantages throughout HRA; now these advantages extended
only to the much smaller DJJ. Although Spofford and NSD had been part of the same agency
for nearly four years by the time Schall arrived, there was “no sense that there was a
connection between the staff,” she says. As far as she could tell, there was no particular
hostility, either—just a general disinterest. But if an NSD counselor wanted to bring a child to
Spofford for a medical exam, a host of turf issues arose: “Who would take the kids up to the
infirmary? Who would sit with them? There was no concept that Spofford staff could watch
any of these kids, let alone that NSD staff could get [through Spofford’s security],” says
Schall Takes Action
Schall knew when she arrived that she had to to do several things right away, and one
was to develop good relationships with community advocates who kept a close watch on her
I felt very clearly that the first thing I had to do was to
win them over sufficiently so that they would give me
some space to work, and that’s what I set out to do.
I went out [and talked to people] and I said, “We’re
going to do a facility development plan, but we have
to take a new look at it, and it’s going to take us awhile,
and we’re going to do a program as well.” So I would
use that as well as my personal relationships with
people to try to say, “Look, I’m a credible person. I
care about kids,” and try to buy myself some time.
But the commissioner devoted most of her attention to internal matters. During her
first days, she spent a lot of time talking with her senior administrators. “Part of it is—people
bring a series of problems to you that they’ve been waiting to get solved for a long time.
People bring their agendas that they’ve been waiting for somebody to buy. There [was a lot of]
weighing people and trying to get a sense of who they were, what their judgment was like,”
7 This quote comes from an in-house interview conducted by Bruce Cory.
Ellen Schall and the Department of Juvenile Justice
Schall says. “And then there was hiring. I had to make some set of decisions about who to put
in on a temporary basis. That took a lot of time in the beginning.”
Filling Executive Staff Vacancies
DJJ was organized into three large divisions, two headed by deputy commissioners
and one by an assistant commissioner. The deputy commissioner of operations was in charge
of Spofford, NSD, and Court Services. The deputy commissioner of administration was in
charge of budget, fiscal personnel, labor relations, and computer systems. The assistant
commissioner of program planning and development was in charge of NSD, Aftercare (a new
program in the planning stages), management analysis, program development, and grantwriting.
When Schall arrived, only one of these three top positions was filled. Bill Spiller,
deputy commissioner of administration, had served as acting commissioner for DJJ between
Strasburg’s departure and Schall’s arrival. He had applied for the job of commissioner and
had been disappointed not to receive it. Schall knew that Spiller was experienced at dealing
with the complex union relationships at DJJ. He also seemed to have the budget, computer
and other administration functions in reasonable working order. With so many other
problems to tackle, Schall did not want to disrupt that part of the agency. So she asked Spiller
if he would stay on in his old position; he agreed.
This left her with two key vacancies: those in program planning and development and
in operations. Schall felt the planning position would be extremely important in the agency,
and she hoped to convince Kathleen Feely in the mayor’s Office of Operations to take this job.
Schall knew that administrators at DJJ would not be pleased at the choice:
I knew that hiring Kathy was not going to be a popular
move, because everybody hated her. I mean, Ben
[Jones, who had served as Strasburg’s executive
assistant,] and Kay [Murray, agency counsel,] hated
her, and they were the best of the old guard. They
regarded the mayor’s office as evil … and Kathy was
the personification of that.
But Schall had worked with Feely in the past and had great respect for her: “She had a
lot of background and experience with offenders and young people and educational and
employment programs. She was really strong and creative in program development, and she
knew the agency and the issues.” Schall decided to upgrade the planning and development
position to that of deputy commissioner “both to accommodate my interest in bringing Kathy
in and also because it was a very important job at that moment in the organization.”
DJJ was, by City Charter, limited to two deputy commissioners, so upgrading the
planning position meant downgrading the operations position. This did not bother Schall,
however, because she was uneasy with the role traditionally played by the operations
deputies—the last of whom had resigned just before Strasburg’s departure—anyway. It
seemed to Schall that the duties of the operations deputies overlapped significantly with the
Ellen Schall and the Department of Juvenile Justice
duties of the directors of Spofford and Court Services—a system Schall suspected had evolved
because the agency “never had good enough people” running the line operations so the
positions were essentially “doublefilled.” Furthermore, Schall got the sense that under
Strasburg, at least one deputy commissioner for operations, who was black, had played a role
of “translating for—or vouching for—the commissioner. It all seemed wrong to me.”
Ultimately, Schall wanted to get a strong, capable director at Spofford “and then see what we
needed at the top.” In the meantime, at the end of January, Schall gave the title of “director of
operations” to Ben Jones, former executive assistant to Strasburg. This position was to be a
temporary “special assistant role” according to Schall—trouble-shooting at Spofford and
Court Services until she decided what to do about the operations post and what kind of
permanent position to offer Jones.
The other positions on Schall’s top staff were those of the agency counsel, training
director, inspector general (who investigated allegations of wrongdoing, including child abuse,
in the agency), and a public information officer. Schall had worked with Kay Murray, the
agency counsel, in the past, and asked her to stay on; she agreed. Although the commissioner
did not know much about the others, she decided to keep them on board for the time being.
Dealing with Operations
With some of her executive positions taken care of—at least temporarily—Schall
turned her attention to agency operations, beginning with the central administration, where
she quickly became aware of problems with the quality of work produced by the professional
Central Headquarters
In particular, she and Feely were frustrated with the quality of analysis being done in
the planning department. Feely, for instance, was interested in the possibility of shifting staff
positions from Spofford to the Aftercare program, and asked her planners to take a critical
look at staffing levels in Spofford. They balked. “The operations analysis function previously
had been to justify how many staff they had rather than to take a critical look at it,” says Feely.
During her first few months on the job, Feely asked “four or five” of her nine-member staff to
leave. Others resigned. “I ended up with only two,” she says, “and I was just working
incredible hours to try to do a lot of the work myself.”
The Line Divisions
By the end of Schall’s first three months, the directors of Spofford, NSD, and Court
Services had all resigned, so Schall and Feely had to make quick hiring decisions while at the
same time trying to figure out how the units were operating. Feely also had to hire a director
for the Aftercare program, which was ready to begin operating when she arrived.
(1) Aftercare. Aftercare, a federally funded pilot project aimed at helping children who
returned home once they left DJJ, had been designed under the Strasburg administration, but
Ellen Schall and the Department of Juvenile Justice
had not yet begun to operate by the time Schall and Feely arrived. Late in January, Feely
assigned a DJJ administrator as permanent director to start up the program. However, after
three months of operation, Schall and Feely discovered that the program was serving only six
children, due to a serious program design flaw—namely, that children were eligible for the
program only if they had no pending cases in court. The idea had been to avoid entangling the
program in legal snares or making it a “sentencing option” for the courts; DJJ had wanted to
keep the program genuinely voluntary for the children. But in reality, almost all of the
children left DJJ’s custody with pending court cases, and thus, virtually no one was eligible for
Aftercare. Says Schall:
It speaks to the planning unit’s then-fundamentaldisconnection
from operations and the court system
that they could have gotten this far: they’d gotten a
grant and here they were with this program and no
kids because there were no kids that fit the criteria.8
(2) Court services. Court Services was a division that had had significant performance
problems in the past, but was already on the road to recovery by the time Schall came to the
agency. In fiscal year 1982, for instance, 40 percent of the children transported to court by the
unit had arrived late for their court hearings. By FY 1983, that late-arrival rate had dropped to
about 10 percent. The director of Court Services had held her post since 1980 but—for reasons
unknown to Schall—resigned the third week in March. Schall hired Jim Corbett, a senior
employee from within, to serve as acting director of the unit, with the understanding that if he
performed well, he would be made permanent director.
(3) NSD. NSD was the second largest operating unit of DJJ, but it was still much
smaller than Spofford. When Schall came to DJJ, she knew that 20 percent of the children held
in non-secure facilities were absconding before their court appearances, but she did not know
much else about this part of the agency. In February, the NSD director came to Schall to
announce that she had received another job offer. “Without having a group of people whose
judgments you know and can trust, you have to make quick decisions,” Schall says. “[When]
she said she’d gotten another job offer—should she take it—I just said yeah, because I wasn’t
prepared to say I would keep her. I didn’t want her to turn down the job and me to be sorry.”
Uncertain what kind of person she wanted to head NSD, or what direction she wanted
this part of the agency to move, Schall delegated the decision to Feely, who appointed one of
her planners to serve as acting director in a caretaker role. By late winter and early spring,
Schall and Feely began to realize that NSD was run in a very “loose” fashion, with erratic
services and little coordination. In April, Feely discovered, to her shock, that while some
individual social workers kept information about the children, NSD itself did not keep any
records on individual children either centrally or at the detention sites. She recalls:
The police were called in one day because there was
an altercation between two kids. I got called at home—
it was on a Saturday—and the police wanted to know
8 This quote comes from an in-house interview conducted by Bruce Cory.
Ellen Schall and the Department of Juvenile Justice
on what authority did we have these kids in our
custody and what were their charges and all that stuff.
And I said, “Well, check the kid’s file.” And the [NSD]
worker comes to the phone and says, “There aren’t
any files here.” And I was absolutely flabbergasted,
because I had never worked any place that you didn’t
even have a file. You didn’t even have a piece of paper
telling you what the kid’s real name was. It hadn’t
even occurred to me to ask questions that basic. But it
did after that.
(4) Spofford. But by far Schall’s biggest quandary was what to do about Spofford,
which had fallen into “a cycle of failure, scandal, and shifting responsibility,” according to the
1978 mayor’s report, which she had co-authored.
“There were basic security and safety issues,” Schall
says. “Spofford wasn’t under control. It wasn’t a safe
place. It wasn’t calm and orderly.”9
Fighting and sexual assaults among the children were common. Reports of child abuse
were increasing. Suicide attempts by the young residents were chronic. There had been 26
directors of the facility during its 25-year history. (One had stayed only a week.) There was
also a high rate of attrition among the newer juvenile counselors.
(a) Background. In fact, Spofford had been the subject of controversy ever since its
creation in 1958 as a privately run shelter for children called “Youth House.” Especially in its
early days, the facility had been extremely overcrowded, housing 400 children at a time,
despite an official capacity of 212. Within its first 10 years of operation, 11 different studies
had been conducted of the eight-story, white brick facility. Most recommended that it be
closed and replaced by smaller centers.
In 1968, the New York City Office of Probation assumed responsibility for the facility
and renamed it Spofford Juvenile Center, but conditions remained grim. Three years later, the
Legal Aid Society filed a class action suit against the detention center, claiming that conditions
there were “so shockingly oppressive and degrading that they are an affront to basic human
decency.” They listed a litany of grievances, from inadequate medical and psychiatric care to
bad plumbing, poor ventilation, and rodents. In particular, the Society argued that Spofford
was harmful to children who had committed minor offenses such as truancy, because it
exposed them to juveniles accused of serious crimes. That same year, responsibility for
Spofford shifted to the Special Services for Children division of HRA, but it was not until DJJ’s
creation in 1979 that the city stopped housing status offenders with juvenile delinquents and
juvenile offenders.
Meanwhile, Strasburg and the newly formed DJJ had to deal with the fallout from the
legislature’s 1978 Juvenile Offender law. As juvenile offenders were adjudicated in the adult
court system, their cases—which had been handled relatively quickly by the Family Courts—
9 This quote comes from an in-house interview conducted by Bruce Cory.
Ellen Schall and the Department of Juvenile Justice
began dragging out for several months. What’s more, the state Division for Youth, which
detained juveniles after they were sentenced, claimed that it did not have enough space for
the juvenile offenders in its secure facilities. Thus the children were kept in Spofford for weeks
or even months until DFY could place them. While juvenile delinquents were still in and out
of DJJ’s custody within a few weeks, the juvenile offenders might be there as long as a year.
The facility became overcrowded. In November 1980, a 15-year-old—being held in the
infirmary because there were not enough beds available elsewhere in the facility—committed
suicide. Although suicide attempts had long been a chronic problem at Spofford, this was the
first successful suicide in the facility’s history.
The delays were also a problem because Spofford was not set up to serve juveniles
over a long period of time. From the point of view of the children, time spent in Spofford was
“dead time.” Administratively, it could not even be counted to qualify for parole.10 One 17-
year-old inmate told The New York Times, “When you’re with the state, you know you’re one
step closer to home. You’re nowhere here, and it gets to you.” Children in this status were
much more likely than the others to get involved in fights in Spofford. In 1982, in its Crespo
decision, the highest state court forced DFY to place children within 10 days of sentencing,
and overcrowding at Spofford subsided.
During Strasburg’s tenure, security measures at Spofford improved, but Schall knew
that the remaining problems were immense. She believed that part of the problem was that
there had never been truly effective leadership at Spofford:
Spofford was a place that was run by middle
managers. They kept having a series of men executive
directors. There was a group of women below that
level who sort of ran it. But on some level, nobody ran
(b) Finding a director. During Schall’s third week on the job, Spofford’s director resigned
to take a job with the state’s Division for Youth. Schall knew that she wanted to find a strong
leader for the facility, and that it would take time to organize a search. In the meantime, Schall
had to hire an acting director and “keep my fingers crossed [that] it would stay okay and
nothing major would happen.” For the acting post, she considered three top managers at
Spofford and at the end of January, selected one of them—Dave Carter, a black manager who
had worked his way up at Spofford since 1962, had close ties with the union, and impressed
her as a person who genuinely cared about children. Carter knew that Schall intended to carry
out a major search for the permanent director. He understood that he was welcome to apply,
but that there were no guarantees.
Schall initiated the search for the Spofford director in February. Because the position
seemed so critical to her, Schall wanted consulting help in finding the right person. She
learned that the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation was funding searches for commissioners
of state corrections departments across the country “on the theory that one way to change the
10 This was changed under law in 1987.
Ellen Schall and the Department of Juvenile Justice
criminal justice system was to upgrade the quality of the leadership in the corrections sytem.”
Schall met with Ken Schoen, program officer in justice for the Clark Foundation, and he
agreed to fund the search for the director of Spofford. “It was a fair way off their mark, but
they agreed to do it,” she says.
With the Clark Foundation funding came consulting help from two well-known
national consultants: John Isaacson, who would focus on the search itself, and Tom Gilmore,
who would concentrate on developing the leader once he/she was selected.
(c) Re-opening the facilities question. Although the mayor had indicated in December that
he was not necessarily interested in replacing Spofford with new juvenile facilities, Schall
wanted to re-open this question. On one hand, the mayor “was furious and did not want to
hear about building any more facilities,” says Schall, but “on the other hand, he had made a
commitment to do something about replacing Spofford in 1978, and this was already 1983,
which seemed like a very long time.” Working through the deputy mayor’s Office of
Operations, Schall succeeded in convincing Koch to authorize her to undertake a Facilities
Development Project, to assess the condition of Spofford and to consider the possibility either
of repairing it or of constructing new facilities.
Schall delegated this facilities planning to Feely, who was less convinced than she of
the need to replace Spofford. Feely decided to commission a study of the renovation
possibilities, and to ask her planning staff to conduct a separate study to find out which
neighborhoods in the city the children in Spofford were from.
(d) How involved? Initiating a search for a director of Spofford and beginning a study of
the facilities were long-term ways to address the situation, but Schall was not sure whether
she personally should get more involved in directing changes in the facility in the short-run.
Others in city government “frankly advised” both Schall and Feely to keep their distance from
Spofford. “You know,” says Feely, “there’s a theory in New York City government that you
should pick two or three things, do them, and get out. And that’s how you make your
reputation and your name.”
More importantly, Schall was afraid “that if I got too hooked up with Spofford, I could
get dragged in.”
The story of correctional reform in this country is
about a lot of people who got overwhelmed by the
major institutions. You just try to fix it and fix it and
you never fix it and you never get on to do anything
else. All their good intentions come to naught. … I was
worried that if I got sucked in, I’d never be able to pull
out and look at the larger issues.
In addition, she wasn’t sure how someone at her level could successfully effect
changes at an operational level:
I came from an agency where the way to do things is
order them done: “No more thises” or “Only thats.”
And they order it and then they wonder six months
Ellen Schall and the Department of Juvenile Justice
later why it’s not done. So I was worried, as I walked
into Spofford, about my wish to see things fixed. Like, I
wished visiting [hours] would be extended. There was
a part of me that wanted to just order visiting
extended: “From now on, there will be visiting seven
days a week, 12 hours a day.” And then I knew that
wasn’t right, but I also worried that if I spent too much
time there, I wouldn’t be able to keep myself back.
Schall did decide to take a strong stand on the issue of child abuse, however. As soon
as she came to the agency, Schall, Feely, Spiller, Jones, Corbett, Schall’s public relations
director and her executive assistant spent part of their weekly staff meetings reviewing the
reports of the agency’s inspector general, and Schall began procedures to dismiss workers
who were found to have committed child abuse. This was a new and extremely controversial
move throughout the agency, as many of the older guard employees contended that Schall
did not understand what it was like to deal with these children and what it took to keep them
under control. “It was harsh, from their point of view—a very harsh approach of firing people
who hit kids,” says Feely. And instead of seeing the move as evidence that Schall cared about
kids, Feely adds, “they had a sense that she didn’t care about staff.”
Stock-Taking in April 1983
After four months in the job, Schall had pulled together a provisional senior staff and
launched several initiatives. She had also hired a consultant to help her think through the
challenges of taking on a leadership position. But Schall’s senior staff was still hobbled by
several fundamental problems. One was a deep-seated confusion over the agency’s mission.
Schall says:
That question, “What are we? Guards or caretakers?”
was one we got challenged with in a really sort of
aggressive way in the beginning. Like, “What is it? Are
we this or that? Tell us and don’t sort of smoosh it in
the middle.”
Another was the antagonism between the new and old guard administrators, which
was especially dramatic in the case of Feely. Coming to DJJ from City Hall, Feely had arrived
with a low opinion of the agency and an ambitious agenda of her own. She says:
If you had asked me [in 1983], I would have said that I
would have Aftercare and NSD in shape in a year,
Spofford would be fixed the way I [wanted], we would
have planned for the new facilities, and I would be on
to prevention. I thought in the second year of my
tenure here, I would be developing community-based
programs for the prevention of kids ever getting into
the system.
Ellen Schall and the Department of Juvenile Justice
Right from the start she had faced hostility as the City Hall “plant” in the agency. As
Feely began to make changes and fire people on her staff, the bad feelings about her
increased, which left her feeling isolated, miserable and thinking constantly of leaving the
I had nobody to talk to inside the agency except for
Ellen. I got a lot of support from Ellen, but that also has
two sides to it, because then people see you as the
boss’ favorite.
A Senior Staff Retreat?
In April, a public-interest foundation called the Fund for the City of New York
approached Schall to ask if she would like to take her senior staff on a retreat. Schall was
immediately enthusiastic. “I took it as a great opportunity,” she says, “as a way to pull people
together and get some time to think about [the agency].” She did not go into the meeting with
a specific agenda except to draft a mission statement for the department. Some members of
the staff, however, cast a fishy eye at the idea. Feely was not convinced that the session would
accomplish anything. And several of the longer term administrators were also dubious. “It
was seen by a number of us—not all of us, but a number of us—as, ‘Here goes another
retreat,’” says Jones. “‘They generate a list of 17 things that they’re going to do, and only one
of them gets accomplished.’”Nonetheless, Schall forged ahead and scheduled the retreat for May 7 to 10. Then sheand consultant John Isaacson began to think about exactly how to open the discussion.

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