Abuse claims plague juvenile detention
More than 13,000 cruelty charges are made in four years, including in the isles
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COLUMBIA, Miss. » 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.
But 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. A survey by the Associated Press found more than 13,000 claims of abuse at the nation's juvenile correction centers from 2004 through 2007.
The Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility is among the sites of abuse, with a guard convicted of sexually assaulting a boy in October 2005.
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COLUMBIA, Miss. » 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 of the 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.
For boys at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility on Oahu, authority came in the person of 50-year-old Gilbert Hicks, and he wielded that 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.
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 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.
Undoubtedly, juvenile correction facilities and their programs benefit many of the youths who experience them by offering substance abuse programs, educational courses and mental health counseling. And for many troubled youths, the facilities are the last hope to straighten out problems that could eventually lead them to suicide, prison or other institutions.
Still, advocates for the detainees contend that abuse by guards like Hicks remains a major problem and that authorities are not doing enough to address the situation.
In 2004 the 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 youths view sexual relationships with staff members as consensual, not as adults in positions of authority abusing their power.
Sue Burrell, an attorney for the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, recalls investigating sexual encounters between female staff and male inmates at a juvenile facility in Florida:
"One of the boys I interviewed said he didn't think it was fair that his roommate had a relationship with one of the staffers and he didn't."
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.
At least 24 others in juvenile correction centers died since 2004 from suicide and natural causes or pre-existing medical conditions.
While officials in many states complain that funding can be a major challenge -- salaries for guards in Mississippi's juvenile facilities start at $18,000 a year -- it will take more than cash to fix the problems.
"What could be done to minimize or reduce these problems?" asked Melissa Sickmund, with the Pittsburgh-based National Center for Juvenile Justice. "Training. Oversight."
Columbia had about 120 staff members and a $5.8 million budget and at times housed only a few dozen girls. At that rate, it cost about $598 a day to house a girl, according to a study by Timothy Roche, an expert consultant hired by the state.
But there are success stories.
Nancy Molever, an Arizona Juvenile Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said it would have been difficult to improve conditions there -- or meet recommendations made by the federal government -- without a willingness "to change the culture of the agency" that oversees the juvenile facilities.
Arizona recently emerged from a lawsuit the Justice Department filed after three youngsters committed suicide. Arizona invested $8 million to $10 million in facility improvements and increased the starting annual salary of youth correctional officers to more than $30,000, Molever said. The state has also been weeding out employees slow to conform to the new rules, Molever said, but the downside is more employee turnover, which is already a problem nationwide.
Officials in Missouri, which has one of the most highly regarded juvenile correction systems in the country, agree that it takes more than money to run a safe facility.
"It's just a different approach that we take. It's a treatment approach," said Ana Margarita Compain-Romero, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Social Services. "In other states they take a more punitive approach, more like corrections."