Photos: Opening phase on new juvenile facility in Avoyelles _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Office of Juvenile Justice Deputy Secretary Mary Livers speaks at Bunkie's Haas Auditorium at a reception after a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday at the future site of the Acadiana Center for Youth, a long-awaited, secure-care juvenile facility near Bunkie.

Nearly a week after officials told an Orleans Parish judge that juvenile inmates at a Jefferson Parish facility are so out of control that employees can’t stop them from beating up one another, the state’s juvenile justice boss told senators during her confirmation hearing Wednesday that she believes the children at the center are safe.

Mary L. Livers, who has served as deputy secretary of the state Office of Juvenile Justice since her appointment in 2008 by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, admitted her management of the chaotic conditions at the Bridge City Center for Youth is “not adequate” but that she should keep her job even as she struggles to account for money that’s been set aside for 30 additional employees who would boost the security of the detention center.

Livers testified under oath that the agency is actively looking to hire more workers using the available money, but in an apparent contradiction, she also said her agency is under-funded and that all of the dollars in the organization’s budget already are being used to “support the operations.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards reappointed Livers in February, but her job is contingent upon Senate confirmation, which is expected to come up for final consideration toward the end of the legislative session next month.

Livers’ own employees told Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge Mark Doherty last week that youths at Bridge City repeatedly kick down dormitory doors and have been able to roam loose at night, including jumping from one roof to another.

The limited staff are so overwhelmed they’ve been unable to stop attacks between the minor inmates, employees said.

In one incident, several inmates beat up a handcuffed teenager, and in another episode, a juvenile’s jaw was broken, said social services counselor Mark Thomas.

The center’s assistant director, Timothy Maples, said the situation is “mild” compared to problems at other correctional institutions.

The testimony prompted Doherty to declare the conditions at the facility “unsafe” last week.

“Are the kids in Bridge City safe?” asked Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, who serves as chair of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, which hosted the confirmation hearing Wednesday.

“Based on the staffing we have, yes,” replied Livers, who emphasized the employee shortage of 30 people.

About 215 employees supervise 136 children at the center, she said.

But Livers was unable to answer questions about how long there have been 30 vacancies and why they haven’t been filled. She said the agency is working to hire more people. Livers, in testimony that appeared to confuse the senators, also said the agency has already spent the money set aside for those jobs, saying the organization has many expenses including food, clothing and repairs.

“You have 30 vacancies right now and the salaries and benefits associated with hiring those people, that’s (money) currently in the bank to use, if you decide to hire people today?” asked Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans.

“Correct,” Livers said.

“OK, but you just said a second ago that you’re underfunded,” Bishop said.

In another exchange, Sen. James Fannin, R-Jonesboro, asked how the funds for the 30 vacant spots are currently being used.

“To support the operations,” Livers replied.

“How does it support the operations?” Bishop asked.

“I wish I had my undersecretary,” Livers said. “I don’t have the information with me.”

Livers, who said juvenile justice is her “passion,” was touted by Edwards in a news release announcing her re-appointment in February as “a driving force in the transformation of juvenile justice in Louisiana” who has “tirelessly embraced and promoted just and humane treatment.”

Peterson, during the proceedings Wednesday, appeared to grow exasperated with Livers’ answers and her refrain that she takes responsibility for the chaotic situation.

“Madame Chairwoman, if you know a way to keep two boys from fighting each other when they get mad at each other. …” Livers offered.

“No, I’m not gonna run the Office of Juvenile Justice,” Peterson interjected. “That is the job you have to do every day. That’s not my job.”

Livers said she visits Bridge City every two or three weeks, prompting a retort from Peterson: “Maybe that’s not enough. ... It sounds like mayhem.”

“You’ve been there a long time,” Peterson said, in another exchange. “You say, ‘I take responsibility.’ That’s the easiest way you think that people move on from questions. You say, ‘I take responsibility.’ But nothing gets done. And every day, children are at risk.”

Livers acknowledged that numerous staff members have quit after realizing their jobs were not what they’d envisioned, and she said she is working to correct the situation.

“It’s not from a lack of desire, attention, focus. It is the complexity of issues that culminate into being a very difficult task,” Livers said.

Peterson said Livers may be asked to testify before the panel again before legislators consider whether she should be confirmed.

Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.