Archive for Monday, March 3, 2008

Juvenile detention centers record 13,000 abuse claims

March 3, 2008


a former resident of Columbia Training School in Jackson, Miss., shows the "HATE ME" scar she allegedly gave herself using a toenail and sharpened toothpaste tube cap to cut into her arm while in solitary confinement. The state decided Feb. 14 to close the facility. However, several former students are suing the state for "horrendous physical and sexual abuse" at the school.

a former resident of Columbia Training School in Jackson, Miss., shows the "HATE ME" scar she allegedly gave herself using a toenail and sharpened toothpaste tube cap to cut into her arm while in solitary confinement. The state decided Feb. 14 to close the facility. However, several former students are suing the state for "horrendous physical and sexual abuse" at the school.

— The Columbia Training School - pleasant on the outside, austere on the inside - has been home to 37 of the most troubled young women in Mississippi.

If some of those girls and their advocates are to be believed, it is also a cruel and frightening place.

The school has been sued twice in the past four years. One suit brought by the U.S. Justice Department, which the state settled in 2005, claimed detainees were thrown naked into cells and forced to eat their own vomit. The second one, brought by eight girls last year, said they were subjected to "horrendous physical and sexual abuse." Several detainees said they were shackled for 12 hours a day.

These are harsh and disturbing charges - and, in the end, they were among the reasons why state officials announced in February that they will close Columbia. But they aren't uncommon.

Nationwide problem

Across the country, in state after state, child advocates have deplored the conditions under which young offenders are housed - conditions that include sexual and physical abuse and even deaths in restraints. The U.S. Justice Department has filed lawsuits against facilities in 11 states for supervision that is either abusive or harmfully lax and shoddy.

Still, a lack of oversight and nationally accepted standards of tracking abuse make it difficult to know exactly how many youngsters have been assaulted or neglected.

The Associated Press contacted each state agency that oversees juvenile correction centers and asked for information on the number of deaths as well as the number of allegations and confirmed cases of physical, sexual and emotional abuse by staff members since Jan. 1, 2004.

According to the survey, more than 13,000 claims of abuse were identified in juvenile correction centers around the country from 2004 through 2007 - a remarkable total, given that the total population of detainees was about 46,000 at the time the states were surveyed in 2007.

Just 1,343 of those claims of abuse identified by the AP were confirmed by various authorities. Of 1,140 claims of sexual abuse, 143 were confirmed by investigators.

Experts say only a fraction of the allegations are ever confirmed. These are some of the most troubled young people in the country and some will make up stories. But in other cases, the youths are pressured not to report abuse; often, no one believes them anyway.


Advocates for detainees contend that abuse by guards is a major problem and that authorities aren't doing enough to address the situation.

In 2004, the U.S. Justice Department uncovered 2,821 allegations of sexual abuse by juvenile correction staffers. The government study included 194 private facilities, which likely accounts for the higher numbers than the AP found.

But some experts say the true number of sexual incidents is likely even higher. Some youth view sexual relationships with staff members as consensual, not as adults in positions of authority abusing their power.

Other abuse is physical, and often sadistic.

For boys at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, 50-year-old Gilbert Hicks wielded his authority emphatically.

Hicks was convicted of sexual assault in October 2005 after he "grabbed, squeezed and twisted" a boy's testicles, according to a federal lawsuit.

When the boy sought medical attention 10 days later because of pain and swelling, Hicks, who had worked at the facility for 24 years, taunted him by asking: "What, you want me to squeeze your (genitals) again?"

Hicks allegedly abused two other boys the same way.

His sentence? Five years probation and 90 days in jail to be served on weekends.

Deaths in custody

While it is likely that incarcerated youth make false allegations of mistreatment against their guards, there are cases of abuse not being reported because "many children are afraid of what would happen if they snitch on staff," said Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children's Law and Policy in Washington D.C.

The worst physical confrontations can end in death. At least five juveniles died after being forcibly placed in restraints in facilities run by state agencies or private facilities with government contracts since Jan. 1, 2004.

The use of restraint techniques and their too-aggressive application have long been controversial and came under intense scrutiny last year after the death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson.

A grainy video taken at a Florida boot camp in January 2006 shows several guards striking the teen while restraining him. Six guards and a nurse were acquitted Oct. 12 of manslaughter charges after defense attorneys argued that the guards used acceptable tactics.

In Maryland, 17-year-old Isaiah Simmons lost consciousness and died after he was held to the floor face down at a privately owned facility that was contracted by the state. Prosecutors say the staff waited 41 minutes after the boy was unresponsive to call for help.

Other restraint-related deaths were three boys - 17, 15 and 13 - in facilities in Tennessee, New York and Georgia, respectively. At least 24 others in juvenile correction centers died since 2004 from suicide and natural causes or preexisting medical conditions.

Lack of supervision

Supervision does not have to be abusive to be problematic. The absence of supervision creates its own misery.

Some suicidal youths or those who want to harm themselves in other ways don't get the attention they need.

Mississippi's juvenile correction centers have been under the supervision of a court-appointed monitor since 2005 as part of the settlement to end the lawsuit filed by the federal government.

But a 15-year-old girl on suicide watch at Columbia Training School used a toenail and the sharpened cap off a toothpaste tube to carve the words "HATE ME" backward in her forearm. The girl also said she was shackled 12 hours a day and forced to wear leg restraints to classes, meals and other activities.


RedwoodCoast 10 years, 1 month ago

I have my own experiences with the Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority. My younger brother became involved in drug abuse when he was 15 or 16 (beginning in 1997). It really got bad when he started doing meth. Long story short, he ended up in a youth home in Dodge City (1999) and later at Elm Acres in Pittsburg (2000). Oh the stories he told me...

Apparently when he was in Dodge City, the married couple who ran the home were known to abuse drugs themselves. This was apparently no secret to the kids being housed there.

When my brother was sent to Elm Acres, during the first week he was there, he was a victim of a group beating. His ribs were bruised because the other kids had him on the floor kicking him. No one was punished for this. Also, at this particular home, kids would take cough medicine, allergy medicine, or smoke pot. My brother actually procured some pot, skipped school one day, and spent the day sitting in a tree on the Elm Acres property smoking it. No one knew. The kids there were also giving each other tattoos.

I sent a letter to Kathleen Sebelius in 2005 complaining about this and the fact that it sounded like there needed to be more oversight of those programs in Kansas. She forwarded my letter to the head of the Juvenile Justice Authority at that time (I forget the individual). The head of that agency sent me a response basically blaming my brother for his problems and maintaining that the state's juvenile justice programs were running smoothly. I could not differ more.

RedwoodCoast 10 years, 1 month ago

And I would also say that being in these homes did not help him in the least.

Ragingbear 10 years, 1 month ago

And then we are flabberghasted when these kids grow up to become the next Jeffrey Dalhmer, or worse.

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