July 17, 2013

In Georgia, Sex Abuse Allegations Cloud Progress of Juvenile Justice Reform

7-17-2013 Georgia:

Main Street in Dallas, Ga., looks like many a former country town pulled into the orbit of Atlanta. The tidy retired courthouse now houses an arts association and is surrounded by cafes, antique shops and a pleasant plaza. A growing population pushed the law a mile away into the new Watson Government Complex five years ago. A few miles on the other side of town, the Paulding County Sports Complex offers green fields for football and baseball.

The buildings across the street have a great view of the play fields, albeit through chain link fences and razor wire. That’s where the state of Georgia put the Paulding Regional Youth Detention Center, a short-term lockup which houses up to 75 boys and 25 girls from across seven northwest Georgia counties.

At the gates of the Paulding RYDC, the pleasantness of Dallas stops. A federal study ranked it second in the nation for youth reports of sexual victimization while incarcerated.

A sister facility in rural Eastman, Ga. ranked fourth in the nation.

The federal report exposed a disconnect between what Georgia leaders said they want for juvenile justice and what was actually happening. It has also exposed a backlog of investigations of sexual abuse allegations that have resulted in top investigators being put on suspension. In addition, two agencies are being called in to help the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice figure out what is going on in their youth lockup facilities.

BJS Bombshell:

In 2012, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, part of the Federal Department of Justice, conducted a computer-based survey in 326 juvenile detention centers across the country, asking adjudicated youth if they had experienced sexual victimization in detention.

Almost one in 10 reported victimization by either staff or other youth that occurred within the previous 12 months, according to the study which was published in June 2013. Women perpetrated most staff misconduct and most victims were males.

“Victimization” in the survey covers a spectrum of activity from being shown something sexual, without physical contact, to rape. Approximately two in three youth who reported staff misconduct said that the staff member used no force or coercion.

The federal report was shocking to some and the statistics are stark.

At Paulding, about one in three of the 28 youth who completed the survey reported sexual victimization by staff, the highest rate in the country. However, Paulding being a small facility, the sample size was not very large. In fact, Paulding is one of the smallest facilities to be ranked “high” in rates of sexual victimization in the study.

The Eastman Youth Development Campus in Dodge County, Ga., by contrast, is one of the bigger facilities ranked “high.” There, of the 116 youth who completed the survey, almost one in four reported victimization.

Earlier this year, while Georgia’s Legislature and governor crowed about a massive juvenile justice code update and overhaul they passed, dust was piling up on at least 20 youth complaints about sexual misconduct in Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) facilities.

With regard to the backlog, “there’s no way they didn’t know what’s going on,” said Randy Rider, now an independent internal investigations consultant who previously worked at several law enforcement agencies, including 14 years at DJJ in the 1980s and 1990s. By his reading of the DJJ organizational chart, investigative unit leaders would have been informed of the sitting caseloads. “The whole department needs a rework,” said Rider. “Internal Affairs needs to have more latitude to do what they need.”

Rider is also not surprised that many of the reports involved female guards and juvenile males. “It wasn’t frequent, every day, every month. But we had a quantity of those when I was at DJJ,” Rider said. His own opinion is that female guards should not supervise males and male guards should not supervise females.

The day after BJS published its data, DJJ Commissioner Avery Niles ordered DJJ’s PREA Advisory Committee to review the report for significant data that could lead to arrests. PREA is the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a 2003 federal law that commissioned a list of standards and rules to protect incarcerated people from sexual assault, and aims to help jurisdictions implement those rules. PREA applies to all juvenile detention centers.

“I think it would be premature for me to comment on whether I believe the study when the investigation is ongoing,” Niles said after a June board meeting.

Persons in Charge

Niles is relatively new to the juvenile beat. Gov. Nathan Deal appointed the Warden of the Hall County Correctional Institute (for adults) to the DJJ Board in 2011, then confirmed him as the new commissioner in November 2012.

During the federal survey period, the DJJ Commissioner was Gale Buckner, a life-long law enforcement officer, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) veteran and past chair of the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. She served only one year, as she said she had planned, to mend the agency of a “crisis” of safety and security deficiencies. Buckner is now a magistrate court judge in north Georgia’s mountainous Murray County.

Her agency made a major campaign of encouraging youth, staff and other adults at facilities to alert someone if they were being harassed, said Buckner.

Part of the agency’s intake process is a video and flyer about how to report sexual abuse or harassment. Every facility has a Director’s locked box to submit reports, and posters urging youth to speak up and speak out about sexual abuse. And since March of this year, DJJ has had a PREA Coordinator.

Indeed, official written statements from DJJ since the federal report was released say Niles expected more PREA reports than the last federal survey because Georgia is building a “reporting culture” at its juvenile detention centers.

And DJJ’s work toward addressing PREA requirements is impressive, according to an independent, federally-mandated PREA review by The Moss Group, finished in April 2013. “DJJ leadership continues to fully support the Agency PREA Coordinator, sending a clear message of zero tolerance and a commitment to PREA compliance,” it reads. ..continued.. by Maggie Lee

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