You have permission to edit this page.
Edit
A1 A1
News
Community corrections to install body scanner at facility
Device intended to fight drug smuggling issues at building

La PORTE — La Porte County Community Corrections will soon have a new tool to help staff tackle an issue that has long plagued the facility – drug smuggling.

On Monday, the La Porte County Council voted 5-2 to grant a request from Community Corrections director Rochelle Brown to purchase an Intercept Whole Body Detection Scanner from Tek84 for $149,000.

The council gave the department – which oversees offenders serving probation or parole – permission to spend $74,000 from the county general fund for the purchase, with the remaining $75,000 coming from the misdemeanor fund.

The airport-like body scanner is similar to the device currently in use at the La Porte County Jail, allowing community corrections staff to help identify any contraband hidden on offenders, employees and visitors entering the facility on Zigler Road in La Porte. The scanner uses a low-level X-ray, similar to those used for medical exams, with each scan lasting around 4 seconds, Brown said.

The director is hoping the device will help stem the smuggling of drugs into the center.

Since taking over the position in April, Brown has had two offenders experience overdoses at the facility, with staff using opioid blockers to resuscitate the victims. Staff later learned that the two had been smuggling drugs into the center through body cavities.

“It’s not a nice way [to smuggle in drugs], but you don’t stop that without a body scanner,” said Circuit Court Judge Thomas Alevizos, who spoke in favor of the purchase.

County officials have been fighting drug problems inside the community corrections center for the past two decades, Alevizos said.

“It was such a problem about a decade ago that I had people coming to court voluntarily wanting to go [to prison] rather than community corrections or stay in the county jail because we had a drug problem and they knew it was a recipe for disaster,” he said.

The problem was one of the reasons the county decided to build its current facility in 2011, as the former location was rife with areas for offenders to smuggle drugs into the building, the judge said. While the move helped stem the issue for a time, it has begun to intensify again, with offenders finding new methods of getting contraband inside.

County leaders have bounced around the idea of purchasing a scanner for the four years, with officials hoping to set aside funds from the monthly fees staff collect from offenders, Alevizos said.

Unfortunately, the collections plummeted over the past two years, going from $400 to $275 per person a month. The judge eventually learned this was due to an employee charging each offender the bare minimum on the state’s sliding pay scale.

“Tens of thousands – hundreds of thousands – of dollars probably went down the tubes,” Alevizos said. “So much so, that we actually owe the [Department of Correction] money now.”

Despite these issues, Brown has managed to bring collections back up to an average of $375 per person a month, though this amount is allowing the facility to just cover the amount it owes the state, the judge said.

While in favor of installing a body scanner at the facility, Councilman Jeff Santana voted against the request.

He wants the department to hold off for a least another two years, when the county is in a more stable financial condition, before pulling the trigger on the purchase.

In the meantime, he suggested that staff transport offenders to the county jail to get scanned, which was one of the selling points when the Sheriff’s Department purchased ar device three years ago, Santana said.

Brown and Alevizos pushed back on that suggestion, however, saying while community corrections often transports residents to the jail for scanning, this is only when they already suspect someone has been smuggling.

Also, the center requires two guards to take the offenders to the jail, which can be difficult to accomplish as the center sometimes only has three guards on duty at a time, Brown said.

Council vice president Mike Mollenhauer also pointed out that Sheriff John Boyd relayed to him concerns that such a plan could increase the odds of exposing the jail to COVID-19.

“I don’t think he wants that coming in and out of the jail, like a revolving door,” he said. “It’s a difficult job as it is right now with trying to make sure people aren’t sick coming in there. If you got that going on, I think that may be a problem.”


News
top story
Washington Park Beach cleanup goes on amid pandemic

MICHIGAN CITY — The global pandemic can’t keep the Monday Mornings Beach Clean-up crew down.

The group of volunteers has been gathering at Washington Park weekly to pick up trash and debris that’s been left behind by beachgoers or washed up by the lake since 2018.

Michigan City native Nora Ryszka, who founded the group, reflected on visiting the local beach daily with her young daughters when they would return to town each summer from their home in Arizona.

“When I moved back here a few years ago, I just saw a dramatic increase in the litter and the garbage in the sand,” Ryszka said. “All of a sudden, when it came to my attention, it was so overwhelming. I kept picking up piece after piece after piece.”

While nursing an injured leg, Ryszka would walk the beach, picking up trash as she moved along.

“I was working really hard to get better; so, it just became kind of this dual effort of cleaning the beach as well as a form of physical therapy for myself,” she said. “But I quickly realized it was a job that was way too big for me.

“So, I reached out to some friends and that’s when Mike [Kilbourne] joined me. He was kind of coming out of a rough spot, too; and we just kind of healed ourselves and each other through cleaning the beach. And then we just put a good name to it.”

Kilbourne, a regular weekly participant of the clean-up, recalled his initial involvement.

“When I first started doing this, I’d lost my job and I was going through a depression,” he said. “I saw that my friends were getting out here and doing this, and I wanted to be a part of it.

“When I was being treated for depression, part of my treatment plan became … cleaning the beach because I enjoyed it so much. It became a healing mechanism for me to come out here and do this – to make a difference, make Michigan City better, be at the relaxing lakeside, be among friends. So, it’s a civic thing, it’s a social thing and it’s a me thing.”

Ryszka said the all-volunteer initiative was larger during the summers of 2018 and 2019.

She’d reached out to the Michigan City Parks Department, which helped guide her in coordinating weekly sponsorship of the cleanups by local businesses, nonprofits, summer camps and other entities. And what started as five volunteers each week quickly became 30.

“But then the quarantine came,” she said. “So, we’ve just kind of used our grassroots momentum to ride out this season, versus advertising to big groups.”

Even still, Ryszka estimates “a solid 10 regulars” show up each Monday morning, taking responsibility for the lakefront they love.

One major issue she noted is the constant presence of cigarette butts in the sand. Although the clean-up crew doesn’t weigh or count the trash they collect, her husband, John Ryszka, sometimes counts the cigarette butts in his bucket – always in the hundreds.

“People tend to see the garbage on the beach as somebody else’s problem, or something caused by ‘those pigs’ or ‘those outsiders’,” Nora said. “But so much of the garbage that we see on the beach is actually washing up from the lake and is our trash that blows off of our lawns or the landfill and gets into the waterways and then washes back up.”

“So much of the garbage here is not left by polluters and litterbugs. That said, there’s a lot that’s left behind by litterbugs.”

Anyone interested in helping Monday Mornings Beach Clean-up with their efforts is invited to show up at the lakefront in Washington Park at 8 a.m. on any Monday the weather permits.

While Ryszka and Kilbourne encourage those who do come to bring grabbers and buckets, they always bring extras just in case.

To stay updated on the group’s efforts, join the public Facebook group “Monday Mornings! Beach Clean-up.”


News
Surveying and serving LGBTQ youth in La Porte County juvenile center

LA PORTE — Issues facing the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities tend to receive increased visibility during the month of June, declared nationally as LGBTQ Pride Month.

But locally, the staff at La Porte Circuit Court has made the issues a matter of focus year-round – particularly as they pertain to LGBTQ youth, who make up a disproportionate number of those at the La Porte County Juvenile Services Center.

“A surprising number of kids today identify as LGBTQ,” La Porte County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Alevizos said.

“We got grant money to identify what percentage of kids are now self-identifying in these categories, particularly the ones who come into the system. We assumed it would be higher than the national average because of the additional stressors LGBTQ youth face.”

His assumption was correct.

According to a study conducted on kids who entered JSC between April 1 and Dec. 31, 2019, 13 percent of survey respondents self-identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual; and as many as 20 percent reported being attracted to people of the same sex.

“Because we are dealing with a teenage population, we also asked respondents about their sexual attraction,” the final report states. “Some youth might still be in the process of discovering who they are as people; and terms such as heterosexual, homosexual, gay, lesbian, or bisexual might not carry a great deal of meaning for them just yet.”

The study, conducted by La Porte Circuit Court Director of Juvenile Court Services Robert “Chip” Cotman and Purdue University Northwest professor of sociology Hubert Izienicki, was funded through a grant the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute awarded the court last year.

In addition to determining the demographics (age, race, etc.) of the 258 kids who participated, the study determined the size of the sexual and gender minority population at JSC, as well as the demographic composition of each sexual minority subgroup (gay, lesbian, etc.).

“Compared to the national-level data, which estimates the LGB population in the range of 6-8 [percent], the percentage of LGB youth within La Porte County Juvenile Justice System is disproportionally high,” Izienicki and Cotman write. “(Similar) to previous work on this topic, we also found that the LGB youth population ... was disproportionally female ... with 25 (percent) girls/women reporting being lesbian or bisexual compared to 4 (percent) boys/men being gay or bisexual.”

They speculate that age, race and social class may be contributing factors in how participants identified themselves and their attractions; but said the numbers determined with certainty that more fluidity was apparent when respondents were asked about sexual attraction instead of sex and gender identities.

Completing the study was about more than getting a headcount, though; the judge said it has led to the creation of important policy changes.

“We wanted to make sure that we had a policy to identify and address these issues, to make sure we aren’t doing anything to make things worse for LGBTQ kids,” Alevizos said Monday. “We want to make sure that our programming and the way we treat them isn’t going to make things harder … because that would be counterproductive to everything we do.”

The new policy clearly defines terms like gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gender expression, gender identity, gender nonconforming, intersex – as well as discrimination, harassment and sexual harassment.

It also calls for all JSC employees, volunteers and interns to attend specialized training to prepare them to respond appropriately to children of varying gender identities, gender expressions, sexual orientations and intersex conditions.

Under its changes, children at JSC will be allowed to present as their preferred gender, and will be called by their preferred names and pronouns.

Additionally, the policy mandates no child be placed in isolation or segregation based on his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Housing for transgender youth will be based on the youth’s individualized needs and taking into account the youth’s perception of where he or she will be most secure,” the policy states. “This will be case by case and the Counselors will make the determination.”

Diverting kids from the criminal justice system is the ultimate goal of the updated policy and continued LGBTQ youth data collection in La Porte County, Alevizos said.

And he noted the county belongs to the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), designed to identify youth who can be better served through alternatives to incarceration, such as proper counseling.

Cotman said La Porte County is the first JDAI county in Indiana to engage in the process of LGBTQ youth data collection. In fact, the county’s 2019 study is being used by the state’s JDAI team to aid other counties in conducting similar studies.

The ICJI has awarded the Circuit Court a new grant to continue its data collection, this time for a full calendar year.

And the Annie E. Casey Foundation awarded the court a grant to partner with Angela Irvine of Ceres Policy Research on LGBTQ research for the next two years. Cotman said it’s the first grant the foundation has issued to any county for such research.

To view the complete results from the 2019 study of LGBTQ youth at La Porte County JSC, or the resulting policy changes, contact Cotman at rcotman@laporteco.in.gov.


News
Caution urged as long-term care facilities begin to reopen to visitors

INDIANAPOLIS — After months of not being able to see their loved ones in person, outdoor visitation has begun at some long-term care facilities as the state health department allows facilities with no new COVID-19 cases among residents or staff to reopen this month.

But health officials say the risk is still there and urged long-term care facilities to consider whether now is the right time.

Though the state’s guidance is thorough, the Johnson County Health Department is urging facilities to use caution. While fewer cases and deaths are being reported, there is still an elevated risk for the elderly, said Betsy Swearingen, health department director.

On Monday, the Indiana State Department of Health’s weekly report showed 268 facilities in Indiana have at least one case and 173 have had at least one death. The state does not name which facilities, however.

Overall there have been 5,147 cases reported at long-term facilities, and 1,140 deaths. That number went up by 205 cases and 58 deaths in the last week.

There is always a chance of a spike as things open back up and larger gatherings begin again, Swearingen said.

Another concern is the likelihood that an asymptomatic carrier could spread the virus to a facility without their knowledge, she said. The CDC estimates that 35 percent of those who have been infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic carriers.

The health department has reason to be cautious given anecdotal evidence. At some point during the outbreak, an individual made an unauthorized outdoor visit to an assisted living facility and caught COVID-19, spreading it to others and causing three deaths, Swearingen said.

“Right now, they are encouraging outdoor visitation. But we have known in the past that outdoor visitation can still lead to the contraction of COVID-19, and it has led to the subsequent deaths of three Johnson County residents,” she said.

“So it is our line, as the health department, that it is still too soon for these types of things. I can’t force long-term care facilities not to allow visitors, but we will strongly caution against that at this time.”

In its visitation guidance, the state health department cites a Japanese study that found “odds that a primary case transmitted COVID-19 in a closed environment was 18.7 times greater compared to an open-air environment.”

Though outdoor transmission is possible, it is less likely, according to a Chinese study the state cited. The study looked at 318 cases where COVID-19 was transmitted from an infected person to multiple others. Of those 318 cases, just one originated from an interaction that took place outdoors, the study says.

Not all facilities are allowing outdoor visitors and are opting to stay closed due to the ongoing risk or because the facility does not meet one or more of the state’s requirements to begin visits.

“The long-term care facility residents are our most vulnerable population and they are the ones who need (to be) protected. Obviously, we have seen that in our numbers. That’s why we are thinking like we are thinking,” Swearingen said.

As for the long-term care facilities that chose to open back up, she is urging administrators to do what is best for their residents and follow CDC and state health department guidance closely, she said.

The state handed down several guidelines before allowing facilities to take this step, and all had to come up with individual plans.

According to the guidelines, facilities must: not have a new COVID-19 infection reported within 14 days; establish a set visitation schedule; have adequate staff to help enforce the guidelines; wipe down visitation areas between visits; require visitors and residents to wear masks; screen visitors for symptoms; and provide hand sanitizer.

Visitors must be 12 or older and agree to follow state guidelines and any additional guidelines set by the facility. Visitors must submit to a health screening, provide contact information and provide a doctor’s note or test results if they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 at any time. Visitors may bring food, but cannot share it with the resident.

Several facilities are also directing visitors to keep their distance and not share hugs or kisses with loved ones.