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Report: Georgia among worst for sexual assaults on juveniles in custody

By Rhonda Cook and Steve Visser - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution



Four Georgia lockups for juvenile offenders are among the U.S. facilities with the most instances of inmates being victimized sexually, according to a federal report released Thursday.

A regional youth detention center in Paulding County led the nation with 32.1 percent of the teenagers surveyed anonymously last year reporting they were victimized sexually by either staff or other juveniles. That was more than three times the national rate of 9.5 percent.

Also included in the list of the 13 U.S. facilities with the highest rates of sexual victimization were the Eastman Youth Development Campus in Dodge County, the Augusta YDC in Richmond County and the Sumter YDC in Americus.

Researchers found that 15.8 percent of the 497 juveniles in Georgia’s criminal justice system who were surveyed had had a sexual encounter with a staff member, which is a felony even if it is deemed consensual. Just at the four Georgia facilities cited among the worst in the nation, nearly 300 boys reported sexual abuse last year.

Georgia, Illinois, Ohio and South Carolina led the nation while Delaware, Massachusetts, New York and the District of Columbia had no reported incidents of sexual victimization, the report said.

“The rates in Georgia leapt off the page for sure,” said Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, a spokesman for Just Detention International, an organization that fights sexual abuse in detention facilities. “It is shocking.”

The survey was conducted at 17 of Georgia’s 27 long- and short-term juvenile facilities. Short-term facilities tend to be smaller and function like jails, where the inmates are waiting for trials or to be transferred to long-term facilities. The Paulding detention center is a short-term facility, while Augusta, Eastman and Sumter are long-term facilities.

The results were released as Georgia moves aggressively to overhaul its juvenile justice system with a goal of locking up fewer offenders and keeping the ones who can be saved away from the most dangerous inmates.

The Department of Juvenile Justice said in a news release that it had installed cameras and was more closely monitoring certain areas in its institutions.

The agency said it had already addressed the problem by encouraging the teenage boys and girls in its custody to participate in the surveys and to report staff who make inappropriate sexual advances. The surveys were created under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, which was adopted in 2003, and researchers took a number of steps to weed out responses that may have not been accurate.

“Our facility staff is trained to understand the crucial nature of enforcing detailed PREA standards in secure facilities,” Commissioner Avery Niles said in the news release.

This was the second such survey.

The findings from the first survey were a compilation of the results for the entire nation and not state-by-state. According to that first study, 12.6 percent of the juveniles in U.S. detention centers reported staff sexual misconduct. According to the report released Thursday, 9.5 percent of more than 8,700 juveniles at 447 U.S. facilities claimed to be a victim of staff sexual misconduct.

Most of the time, it involved young female staffers and teenage boys in custody, said Allen Beck, the lead author of the report.

The study did not address the reasons the numbers are higher at some institutions.

“The big challenge for juvenile corrections administrators is to figure this out,” Beck said.

Rick McDevitt, president of the Georgia Alliance for Children, said his own research regarding sexual and physical assaults from a few years ago was in line with the report.

“We’ve long said those facilities are out of control and the state does a poor job at protecting vulnerable children,” McDevitt said.

Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske, who serves on the judiciary advisory council for the Department of Juvenile Justice Board, said the findings were distressing. But he believes Niles, who assumed the job in November, and his predecessor, Gale Buckner, had cracked down on staff misconduct.

“You may have a survey that was taking place at a time when you still have that residual effect of there not being as much of an aggressive policy and investigation,” Teske said.

The overall national rates were lower than the previous year, but they still demonstrated that a number of facilities nationwide are failing, Lerner-Kinglake said.

The Paulding facility “to put it mildly was quite shocking,” Lerner-Kinglake said.

While the Paulding detention center, which holds up to 75 boys and 25 girls, had the largest percentage with 29 teenage boys reporting staff sexual misconduct, the totals were larger at the other three facilities cited in the report. Eastman, which holds up to 330 boys, had the highest total with 116. Sumter, which holds up to 150 boys, saw 87 report abuse, and 51 reported abuse at Augusta, which holds up to 120 boys.

Lerner-Kinglake said more research would be necessary to determine whether the high rates of abuse in Georgia demonstrated a systemic problem, but he noted that the number of facilities nationwide reporting zero to low rates of abuse showed that sexual abuse was not inevitable. He said the interviews at some facilities uncovered rampant unprofessional behavior of staff sending pictures of themselves to juveniles, bringing them gifts and contacting them outside the facility.

“Many facilities are doing a great job of eliminating the abuse through better management and treating people with respect,” he said. “One thing I will say confidently, we know that good management, best practices and good leadership are key.”

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