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

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Maggie Lee/JJIE

Paulding Regional Youth Detention Center in Dallas, GA.

Maggie Lee / JJIE

The Paulding Regional Youth Detention Center in Dallas, Ga.

DALLAS, Ga. — 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.

But if Niles is finding or soliciting more PREA whistle-blowing, he’s also saying there’s stagnation in his investigations department. Or, as he said after the June board meeting: “I think there’s some complacency … amongst the investigators as it relates to completeness of case files.”

The 20-plus unfinished internal investigations of sex abuse allegations date from 2012, according to DJJ. Department policy allows 45 days to finish such investigations.

On June 13, Avery suspended 19 investigators and a former supervisor — that’s most of the investigative unit, according to 2011 and 2012 staffing levels reported by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts.

The names on the investigative team were almost completely consistent from mid-2011 through mid-2012, the last publicly-available personnel update.

Buckner described the team under her tenure, the year ending November 2012, as hardworking and serious about PREA allegations.

“While I was there the investigators were comprised of experienced men and women who were very dedicated to the mission of the agency and the mission of their work unit,” Buckner said.

But she also pointed out that DJJ has more than two dozen facilities statewide and thousands of employees. “That’s a lot of ground for 19 people,” she said.

Paulding, though a YSI facility, was held to the same standards as state-run facilities under her leadership, Buckner also said.

In the absence of his 19 investigators, Avery called in the Georgia Department of Corrections and the Georgia Bureau of Investigations to help with the backlog. Niles has also named a new Director of Investigations, Ricky Rich, a former deputy director and law enforcement coordinator at the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

The Department of Corrections confirmed that it is working on some cases at DJJ’s request, but declined to specify how many. The GBI said it is working on three DJJ investigations, two of which are of a sexual nature.

Jail Tales

Pamela Matthews spent an entire career as a Paulding County Public School teacher before taking a job at her community’s RYDC, where she was teaching in March 2012. She’d been knitted into the community long enough to have known some of the boys she saw at the RYDC when they were elementary school students.

“I would like it to be known how much I cared for the boys,” Matthews said.

On March 7, 2012, Matthews submitted a written statement to her superiors, saying that students in her class had discussed the sexual victimization survey. A handful of boys alleged female officers had watched boys in the shower, had allowed the boys to touch their breasts and genitals and had oral sex with the youth.

Matthews knew she was a mandatory reporter — someone obligated by law to report child abuse suspicions. But she said she ran into disbelief.

A staff member named Hayes looked into Matthews’ report. DJJ’s Special Incident Report (SIR), released to JJIE with the youths’ names redacted, contains a March 15 entry from Hayes.

Hayes reported that one of the boys said another boy was making up the story, and that the youth were “only playing” with Matthews.

“I was laughed at [by people in management],” said Matthews. “I was told [by people in management] the boys liked it … Nobody [in management] believed me until I got the statement from the boys.”

The students’ comments, written in their own hands, appear in the SIR, dated March 20:

“[The officer] let’s kids masturbate to them. She pulls chairs into the blind spots to sleep. She orders outside food at night when Administration is not here. She lets us give food for drill time. She flirts with kids, she lets kids touch her inappropiatly … (most kids won’t say nothing because they like her doing this stuff)” [sic].

Another wrote: “I don’t know I was just there enjoying the conversation but some of it I be seeing I just don’t say nothing because it isn’t my business and I don’t care what she do.” [sic].

Another wrote: “I don’t no what the class was talking about I was just going along with them.” [sic].

A computer-printed, unsigned, March 20 note from a staff member said one youth, being reminded his release date was days away, reiterated the first set of allegations about the officer.

Paulding RYDC sent a notice to the Department of Family and Children Services on March 23. That’s 16 days after Matthews’ original report.

It’s not clear what happened to the officer. The DJJ does not have any information on a separation date, if any, between Paulding and the officer. That’s because a private contractor runs Paulding, and DJJ does not have employment data on those staff.

Help Wanted

Working as a DJJ corrections officer can be a rough job in certain facilities. Indeed, the week before Matthews wrote her SIR, a late-night fight broke out at Paulding RYDC severe enough that jailers called 911 and the county arrested a youth.

In the polite language of The Moss Group’s report on Eastman YDC, “approximately 53 percent of staff disagreed or strongly disagreed that Eastman was a physically safe environment for staff … Nearly 75 percent of staff disagreed or strongly disagreed that youth treat staff with basic respect.”

Or, to give a concrete example, over a period of seven months in 2012 there are 66 reports originating from Paulding RYDC detailing inappropriate sexual conduct. Two involve allegations of staff-on-youth victimization.

The remaining 64 involve lewd or lascivious conduct by youth, almost always a male youth exposing himself to staff or masturbating in front of staff.

That may be one reason why a collection of reusable signs is posted outside of Paulding. They all advertise job openings.

For more of JJIE’s coverage of the Ga. DJJ, read: Seven Officers at Georgia RYDC Removed after “Egregious Policy Violations”

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