Sexual Assault, Suicide Attempts at 2 Understaffed Arkansas Lockups

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Arkansas facility understaffed on weekends.

Photos by Brian Chilson

On the outside of the Dermott Juvenile Treatment Center looking in.

Arkansas Nonprofit News Network

(Part 3 of 3)

Teenagers confined to two state-run South Arkansas juvenile lockup frequently were not adequately supervised, according to nine current and former staffers interviewed by the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network. Regularly in 2017, the number of staff did not meet the American Correctional Association standard of one direct care staff member to eight youths. On the many days the facilities were understaffed last year, one teenager raped another, several youths attempted suicide and others attempted escape.

Youths at the facilities also lived for long periods in dorms without heat and air-conditioning and without basic hygiene supplies, adequate shoes and coats, previous reports from the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network detailed.

The Dermott Juvenile Treatment Center for 13- to 17-year-old boys is one of seven juvenile lockups referred to as treatment centers by the Arkansas Department of Human Services' Division of Youth Services (DYS), which oversees them. As the name suggests, treatment facilities are intended to be rehabilitative rather than punitive.

For more information on mental health treatment, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders

Youths committed to the facilities must complete treatment plans designed by the DYS, rather than time-based sentences. Under state supervision, they are referred to as "clients" rather than "inmates." The nearby Dermott Juvenile Correctional Facility houses 18- to 21-year-olds who were committed to a treatment center as juveniles but have not yet completed their treatment plans.

Understaffing complaints

In January 2017, at Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s direction, DYS took direct control of seven of eight youth jails, including Dermott’s Juvenile Treatment Center and the Juvenile Correctional Facility — after efforts by the state to contract them out to a new vendor were blocked in the legislature in December 2016. The state had not directly operated the facilities in more than 20 years.

In an Oct. 30 email obtained through the state Freedom of Information Act, John Whaley, who was then the director of both Dermott facilities, complained about state-mandated staffing schedules that routinely left him with too few staff to "provide essential safety of all youth." The juvenile treatment center houses as many as 32 youths ages 13-17 in three dorms. The correctional facility, which contains five dorms or pods made up of locked cells, housed as many as 42 residents ages 18-21 last year until the fall, when the DYS limited the capacity to 40.

Whaley submitted his resignation Nov. 27. Reached by phone, he declined comment. The DYS said he resigned ahead of termination.

Sometime after the state took over the Dermott facilities, it instituted a new schedule that assigned 12 staff members to each facility on shifts Tuesday through Thursday, but assigned only six during shifts Friday through Monday. Six was the fewest number of staff that could meet the ACA-required staff-to-client ratio. According to Whaley's email, staff turnover and absences were common enough that having only six staffers on schedule did not maintain enough cushion to consistently meet the required staffing ratio. Whaley said the schedule left the facility chronically understaffed Friday through Monday.

Multiple current and former staffers said that both Dermott facilities regularly did not adhere to the required 8-to-1 ratio of clients to staff Friday through Monday.

Benjamin Knuckles

Knuckles, 16, was committed to the treatment center in April 2017 and released in October. (Because he is a juvenile, the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is identifying him by his first initial only). "It was Sundays and Mondays there was no control after first shift," he said of his time at the treatment center. "That's when they're short-staffed, and the staff they got there on that shift don't give a crap about what goes on."

In December, on a Saturday when the facility for 13- to 17-year-olds was short on staff and one direct care staffer was monitoring a dorm of more than eight clients, one youth sexually assaulted another in the back of the dorm, according to two current staff members.

The direct care staff member supervising the dorm was playing dominoes with clients and not preventing more than one youth from using the restroom at a time. The staffer was fired. The shift supervisor at the time was suspended for a week without pay for not immediately notifying his supervisor that a possible sexual assault had taken place, according to DYS assistant director April Hannah.

Watching 2 dorms at once

In the correctional facility, residents are often confined to locked rooms and direct care staffers are required to do a head count every 15 minutes. Friday through Monday, staffers often would be required to monitor two dorms, each containing as many as eight residents, by sitting in between them, multiple current and former staffers said.

One current employee said being forced to watch two dorms at the same time puts staff in an impossible situation.

"Say, for instance, if I'm sitting out and watching [dorms] Alpha and Bravo. I've got Bravo out for [recreation] — they give them three hours out. If I get up and walk over to Alpha to check those cells, well I've got a fight that's broken out in Bravo because I've left them unattended. Then say, for instance, the three hours go by and I've got a client in Alpha dorm trying to hang himself, well, I'm going to get fired either way. The fight broke out in Bravo: 'You left them unattended.' 'Well, the client in Alpha was trying to hang himself, and you waited a certain amount of time to get up and check him.' It's like you can't win for losing."

During his time at the correctional facility, former staffer Jimmie Bynum said there were two suicide attempts on days when staff did not meet the ACA ratio. Bynum also said one resident opened the broken door of his cell and entered another resident's cell and assaulted him on a day when the facility was understaffed and a direct care staffer was monitoring two dorms.

Before the state takeover of the Dermott facilities, when the nonprofit South Arkansas Youth Services ran the facilities on a contract from the DYS, staffers' schedules rotated every pay period by one day, which kept staffing levels more uniform throughout the week, longtime current and former staff said.

Schedules standardized

Hannah said the DYS standardized the schedule in the spring of 2017 because all seven of the facilities taken over by the state were doing things differently.

"We based the schedule on ensuring adequate client-staff ratio at all times. With that in mind, there is adequate staff to meet ratio on the weekends. There are additional staff during Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday because of the need to take youth off campus for court hearings, doctor and dental appointments, etc. A staffer must be present with the youth during these off-campus events. There aren't court or medical appointments on the weekend."

She also said that the DYS expected the facility director to find a replacement for any absent staffers to ensure staff met the required ACA-mandated ratio.

In response to specific troubling incidents — including the sexual assault allegation and suicide attempts — when the staff was out of ratio, Hannah said many such instances could have been prevented if staff did their job properly. "People like to throw ratio around as if that is what the contributing factor is, but in a lot of these cases, it wouldn't have mattered if there were 17 extra people there."

"We have terminated a number of staff in relation to incidents," Guhman said. "We have cameras that record everything."

Hannah said the Dermott facilities would move to 12-hour shifts Sunday.

In his Oct. 30 email to senior DYS officials, Whaley said he had systematically been denied permission to fill vacancies at the facilities.

"It's simply not true that we would not fill positions," said Amy Webb, a spokeswoman for the division. But DYS officials acknowledged that it had sometimes been difficult to keep the juvenile treatment center fully staffed. Guhman said the starting pay rate for entry-level staff made it difficult to hire people. An entry-level direct care staffer is paid between $10.10 and $11.20 an hour, depending on what time a day the staffer works. Entry-level staffers were paid $8.50 per hour from Jan. 1, 2017, until July 1, when the state fiscal year began.

Arkansas grounds: picnic table at juvenile facility

Picnic table and benches on grounds of the Dermott Juvenile Treatment Center.

Proposed funding flat

Hutchinson's proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year would keep the DYS' funding flat at $58.1 million. Just like the current fiscal year, $27.6 million would be allotted for residential treatment. The DYS annual per-resident cost at the Dermott treatment center was $52,925 in fiscal year 2016, according to its 2016 annual report, the most recent available. At the correctional facility, it was $54,750.

Disability Rights Arkansas's Masseau said the Dermott facilities were troubled when they were operated by South Arkansas Youth Services under contract by the state. Disability Rights Arkansas has long relayed concerns about safety, lack of services and "horrible infrastructure" in Dermott, he said. The DYS should have been advocating the legislature for more money to improve conditions, he said.

"At some point we have to put the youth as a priority," Masseau said. "We form these coalitions and boards to look at long-term strategies, which are great. ... But we're doing nothing to address the immediate concerns that we have. That is, we have facilities that are falling apart. Kids are not safe. They're not getting treatment. I think it's time for the legislature to step up and say, 'Do we need to allocate additional resources? Do we need to close them down?'"

Benjamin Hardy also contributed to this article.

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at arknews.org.

[Related: Part 1 - Youths at 2 S. Arkansas Lockups Lacked Basic Hygiene Supplies, Coats, Decent Shoes in 2017]

[Related: Part 2 - Teenagers at Two S. Arkansas Lockups Lived Without Heat or Air-conditioning in 2017]

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