Department of Juvenile Justice investigators’ caseloads total in the hundreds, many have been open longer than they’re supposed to be, and employees say the department’s leaders knew about the problem for longer than they are admitting.
Four Georgia juvenile detention centers are on a nationwide list of centers with the most reports of inappropriate sexual contact between the young inmates and employees. DJJ officials say they only discovered the size of the investigations backlog when they started looking into that report.
Employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out fear of repercussions, said they were surprised that top DJJ officials claimed they had been caught off guard by the number of open cases, because burgeoning caseloads were discussed at meetings held weeks before the report was released June 6.
Since then, DJJ has sent out a series of news releases that made slight changes to the agency’s position with each subsequent statement. Earlier this month, Commissioner Avery Niles said there had been no discussions of backlog cases at staff meetings last month, but late Tuesday he said in a written statement that “on at least two occasions in May this year, key executive staff confronted investigators at DJJ with warnings that they were seriously out of compliance with department policies about failing to finish open investigations.”
Two weeks ago, Niles suspended with pay 19 investigators along with the previous head of the Office of Investigations when it was learned there were 20 cases referencing sexual conduct had been open more than 45 days.
The agency’s policies cite 45 days as the deadline for resolving issues recounted in “special incident reports” from the 27 short-term and long-term lockups.
In recent days, DJJ has conceded that the backlog of cases, in particular those alleging sexual contact between juveniles and staff, is much larger than 20 but the agency declines to say how many there are.
The Department of Justice report was based on a nationwide anonymous survey required by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 of detained juvenile offenders who reported varying degrees of inappropriate sexual contact with staff at their institutions.
The Paulding Youth Detention Center topped the list with the largest percentage of teenagers, 32.1 percent, making reports of sexual contact, some with each other but mostly with staff. Three other Georgia lockups also were among the 13 juvenile detention facilities nationwide with a high-rate of “sexual victimization by youth or staff.”
The day after the report came out, Niles assigned an “advisory committee” to examine the findings in the PREA survey. But Niles said in subsequent media statements that he was already taking steps to address issues in the Office of Investigations before the federal report was released and that he only “accelerated” the changes because of the release of the report that cast Georgia is a negative light.
“I can say we expect the final number of unfinished sex abuse investigations to be considerably higher than what the committee first found,” Niles said in an emailed statement. “The advisory committee is making steady progress reviewing this incomplete caseload.”
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the state Department of Corrections are helping with reviews of the open cases.
There were at least two staff meetings before the federal report with a deputy commissioner and director of the Office of Investigations Rick Rich and then subsequent team meetings with investigators and the chief investigator to “triage” every open case, according to someone who attended the meetings.
On May 8, Deputy Commissioner Mark Sexton reportedly told investigators during a teleconference that DJJ leadership knew “y’all have over 700 cases … and we’re going to try to help.”
DJJ has declined to release the number of open cases, claiming that information was part of an ongoing internal investigation. It also did not respond to a request for the number of cases that office closed in 2012 and 2011.
Spokesman Jim Shuler said in an email “as DJJ has already made clear, the agency is not confirming any numbers of cases while this matter is being investigated … One of the reported objectives of the investigation is to get an accurate count of case dispositions.”
The backlog also includes reports of other types of violations, not just those of a sexual nature.
Niles said he suspects “complacency among these investigators. We will examine the job performance of each of our investigators and hear their explanations for these reporting delays.”
Niles said some of the suspended investigators could be cleared and returned to their jobs. Investigators were being called in last week for one-on-one meetings with the new head of the Office of Investigations. Some investigators have said they will simply retire rather than return to DJJ.
Some DJJ employees say cases that should be resolved at the institution level are sent to investigators for the entire system, loading them down and diverting their attention away from cases on more serious allegations.
“They cannot say they did not know,” a DJJ employee said. “They knew a couple of months ago what we had.”