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In Georgia, Sex Abuse Allegations Cloud Progress of Juvenile Justice Reform

Paulding Regional Youth Detention Center in Dallas, GA.
The Paulding Regional Youth Detention Center in Dallas, Ga.

DALLAS, Ga. — Main Street in Dallas, Ga., looks like many a former country town pulled into the orbit of Atlanta. The tidy retired courthouse now houses an arts association and is surrounded by cafes, antique shops and a pleasant plaza. A growing population pushed the law a mile away into the new Watson Government Complex five years ago. A few miles on the other side of town, the Paulding County Sports Complex offers green fields for football and baseball.

The buildings across the street have a great view of the play fields, albeit through chain link fences and razor wire. That’s where the state of Georgia put the Paulding Regional Youth Detention Center, a short-term lockup which houses up to 75 boys and 25 girls from across seven northwest Georgia counties.

At the gates of the Paulding RYDC, the pleasantness of Dallas stops.  A federal study ranked it second in the nation for youth reports of sexual victimization while incarcerated.

A sister facility in rural Eastman, Ga. ranked fourth in the nation.

The federal report exposed a disconnect between what Georgia leaders said they want for juvenile justice and what was actually happening. It has also exposed a backlog of investigations of sexual abuse allegations that have resulted in top investigators being put on suspension. In addition, two agencies are being called in to help the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice figure out what is going on in their youth lockup facilities.

BJS Bombshell

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]At Paulding, about one in three of the 28 youth who completed the survey reported sexual victimization by staff, the highest rate in the country.[/module]In 2012, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, part of the Federal Department of Justice, conducted a computer-based survey in 326 juvenile detention centers across the country, asking adjudicated youth if they had experienced sexual victimization in detention.

Almost one in 10 reported victimization by either staff or other youth that occurred within the previous 12 months, according to the study which was published in June 2013. Women perpetrated most staff misconduct and most victims were males.

“Victimization” in the survey covers a spectrum of activity from being shown something sexual, without physical contact, to rape. Approximately two in three youth who reported staff misconduct said that the staff member used no force or coercion.

The federal report was shocking to some and the statistics are stark.

At Paulding, about one in three of the 28 youth who completed the survey reported sexual victimization by staff, the highest rate in the country. However, Paulding being a small facility, the sample size was not very large. In fact, Paulding is one of the smallest facilities to be ranked “high” in rates of sexual victimization in the study.

The Eastman Youth Development Campus in Dodge County, Ga., by contrast, is one of the bigger facilities ranked “high.” There, of the 116 youth who completed the survey, almost one in four reported victimization.

Earlier this year, while Georgia’s Legislature and governor crowed about a massive juvenile justice code update and overhaul they passed, dust was piling up on at least 20 youth complaints about sexual misconduct in Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) facilities.

With regard to the backlog, “there’s no way they didn’t know what’s going on,” said Randy Rider, now an independent internal investigations consultant who previously worked at several law enforcement agencies, including 14 years at DJJ in the 1980s and 1990s. By his reading of the DJJ organizational chart, investigative unit leaders would have been informed of the sitting caseloads. “The whole department needs a rework,” said Rider. “Internal Affairs needs to have more latitude to do what they need.”

Rider is also not surprised that many of the reports involved female guards and juvenile males. “It wasn’t frequent, every day, every month. But we had a quantity of those when I was at DJJ,” Rider said. His own opinion is that female guards should not supervise males and male guards should not supervise females.

The day after BJS published its data, DJJ Commissioner Avery Niles ordered DJJ’s PREA Advisory Committee to review the report for significant data that could lead to arrests. PREA is the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a 2003 federal law that commissioned a list of standards and rules to protect incarcerated people from sexual assault, and aims to help jurisdictions implement those rules. PREA applies to all juvenile detention centers.

“I think it would be premature for me to comment on whether I believe the study when the investigation is ongoing,” Niles said after a June board meeting.

Persons in Charge

Niles is relatively new to the juvenile beat. Gov. Nathan Deal appointed the Warden of the Hall County Correctional Institute (for adults) to the DJJ Board in 2011, then confirmed him as the new commissioner in November 2012.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“While I was there the investigators were comprised of experienced men and women who were very dedicated to the mission of the agency and the mission of their work unit."[/module]During the federal survey period, the DJJ Commissioner was Gale Buckner, a life-long law enforcement officer, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) veteran and past chair of the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. She served only one year, as she said she had planned, to mend the agency of a “crisis” of safety and security deficiencies. Buckner is now a magistrate court judge in north Georgia’s mountainous Murray County.

Her agency made a major campaign of encouraging youth, staff and other adults at facilities to alert someone if they were being harassed, said Buckner.

Part of the agency’s intake process is a video and flyer about how to report sexual abuse or harassment. Every facility has a Director’s locked box to submit reports, and posters urging youth to speak up and speak out about sexual abuse. And since March of this year, DJJ has had a PREA Coordinator.

Indeed, official written statements from DJJ since the federal report was released say Niles expected more PREA reports than the last federal survey because Georgia is building a “reporting culture” at its juvenile detention centers.

And DJJ’s work toward addressing PREA requirements is impressive, according to an independent, federally-mandated PREA review by The Moss Group, finished in April 2013. “DJJ leadership continues to fully support the Agency PREA Coordinator, sending a clear message of zero tolerance and a commitment to PREA compliance,” it reads.

But if Niles is finding or soliciting more PREA whistle-blowing, he’s also saying there’s stagnation in his investigations department. Or, as he said after the June board meeting: “I think there’s some complacency … amongst the investigators as it relates to completeness of case files.”

The 20-plus unfinished internal investigations of sex abuse allegations date from 2012, according to DJJ. Department policy allows 45 days to finish such investigations.

On June 13, Avery suspended 19 investigators and a former supervisor — that’s most of the investigative unit, according to 2011 and 2012 staffing levels reported by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts.

The names on the investigative team were almost completely consistent from mid-2011 through mid-2012, the last publicly-available personnel update.

Buckner described the team under her tenure, the year ending November 2012, as hardworking and serious about PREA allegations.

“While I was there the investigators were comprised of experienced men and women who were very dedicated to the mission of the agency and the mission of their work unit,” Buckner said.

But she also pointed out that DJJ has more than two dozen facilities statewide and thousands of employees. “That’s a lot of ground for 19 people,” she said.

Paulding, though a YSI facility, was held to the same standards as state-run facilities under her leadership, Buckner also said.

In the absence of his 19 investigators, Avery called in the Georgia Department of Corrections and the Georgia Bureau of Investigations to help with the backlog. Niles has also named a new Director of Investigations, Ricky Rich, a former deputy director and law enforcement coordinator at the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

The Department of Corrections confirmed that it is working on some cases at DJJ’s request, but declined to specify how many. The GBI said it is working on three DJJ investigations, two of which are of a sexual nature.

Jail Tales

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“I was told [by people in management] the boys liked it … Nobody [in management] believed me until I got the statement from the boys.”[/module]Pamela Matthews spent an entire career as a Paulding County Public School teacher before taking a job at her community’s RYDC, where she was teaching in March 2012. She’d been knitted into the community long enough to have known some of the boys she saw at the RYDC when they were elementary school students.

“I would like it to be known how much I cared for the boys,” Matthews said.

On March 7, 2012, Matthews submitted a written statement to her superiors, saying that students in her class had discussed the sexual victimization survey. A handful of boys alleged female officers had watched boys in the shower, had allowed the boys to touch their breasts and genitals and had oral sex with the youth.

Matthews knew she was a mandatory reporter — someone obligated by law to report child abuse suspicions. But she said she ran into disbelief.

A staff member named Hayes looked into Matthews’ report. DJJ’s Special Incident Report (SIR), released to JJIE with the youths’ names redacted, contains a March 15 entry from Hayes.

Hayes reported that one of the boys said another boy was making up the story, and that the youth were “only playing” with Matthews.

“I was laughed at [by people in management],” said Matthews. “I was told [by people in management] the boys liked it … Nobody [in management] believed me until I got the statement from the boys.”

The students’ comments, written in their own hands, appear in the SIR, dated March 20:

“[The officer] let’s kids masturbate to them. She pulls chairs into the blind spots to sleep. She orders outside food at night when Administration is not here. She lets us give food for drill time. She flirts with kids, she lets kids touch her inappropiatly … (most kids won’t say nothing because they like her doing this stuff)” [sic].

Another wrote: “I don’t know I was just there enjoying the conversation but some of it I be seeing I just don’t say nothing because it isn’t my business and I don’t care what she do.” [sic].

Another wrote: “I don’t no what the class was talking about I was just going along with them.” [sic].

A computer-printed, unsigned, March 20 note from a staff member said one youth, being reminded his release date was days away, reiterated the first set of allegations about the officer.

Paulding RYDC sent a notice to the Department of Family and Children Services on March 23. That’s 16 days after Matthews’ original report.

It’s not clear what happened to the officer. The DJJ does not have any information on a separation date, if any, between Paulding and the officer. That’s because a private contractor runs Paulding, and DJJ does not have employment data on those staff.

Help Wanted

Working as a DJJ corrections officer can be a rough job in certain facilities. Indeed, the week before Matthews wrote her SIR, a late-night fight broke out at Paulding RYDC severe enough that jailers called 911 and the county arrested a youth.

In the polite language of The Moss Group’s report on Eastman YDC, “approximately 53 percent of staff disagreed or strongly disagreed that Eastman was a physically safe environment for staff … Nearly 75 percent of staff disagreed or strongly disagreed that youth treat staff with basic respect.”

Or, to give a concrete example, over a period of seven months in 2012 there are 66 reports originating from Paulding RYDC detailing inappropriate sexual conduct. Two involve allegations of staff-on-youth victimization.

The remaining 64 involve lewd or lascivious conduct by youth, almost always a male youth exposing himself to staff or masturbating in front of staff.

That may be one reason why a collection of reusable signs is posted outside of Paulding. They all advertise job openings.

For more of JJIE's coverage of the Ga. DJJ, read: Seven Officers at Georgia RYDC Removed after “Egregious Policy Violations”

Georgia Suspends 20 Juvenile Justice Investigators

AveryNiles
Georgia DJJ Commissioner Avery Niles

Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery D. Niles announced Thursday the suspension with pay of 20 DJJ investigators, including the Office of Investigation’s former chief investigator. The disciplinary actions come in the wake of a scathing report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics showing Georgia’s juvenile detention facilities had among the highest rates of sexual abuse reports in the country, which prompted Niles to assign an advisory committee to look into the matter.

In a press release, Niles said the advisory committee found more than 20 internal sexual abuse investigations from last year remained open longer than DJJ policy allowed. As a result, Niles said, he ordered the investigators’ suspensions “pending an investigation into alleged failure to carry out their assigned duties in a timely manner,” which Niles described as “a disturbing breach of confidence and fundamentally unacceptable.”

Niles continued: “These investigators have a duty to protect our youth and employees and to uphold the most basic standards of professional behavior,” .

According to Niles, the suspensions were necessary before the DJJ could continue its full investigation. “We had to take these immediate corrective actions to ensure all reports of sexual abuse and harassment are thoroughly investigated according to DJJ policy and state and federal law,” he said.

He also announced that the DJJ will be reaching out to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Georgia Department of Corrections for independent investigations of the sexual misconduct allegations. A “comprehensive, top-to-bottom reorganization of the Office of Investigations” is also forthcoming, Niles added.

“I gave clear warning when I was appointed Commissioner that serious violations of policy will not be tolerated in our professional juvenile justice workplace,” he said. “At the Department of Juvenile Justice, staff members who violate positions of trust and responsibility will continue to face severe consequences, regardless of time on the job, employee rank or position in this agency.”

 

 

Georgia Council Says State Could Save Tens of Millions By Lowering Juvenile Detention Population

The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians recently released a report claiming that the state could save an estimated $88 million by reducing the number of young people held in secure facilities over the next five years.

The authors of the report recommend decreasing the state’s total out-of-home adjudicated population by more than a quarter by 2018, stating that the measure would allow “significant opportunities for savings and reallocation of resources.”

The report states that status offenders should not be subjected to either short-term or long-term detention, while young people accused of misdemeanors would be better served by diversions to community-based programs. Combined, status offenders and youth found guilty of misdemeanors represented more than a quarter of Georgia’s juvenile lock-up population in 2011.

Currently, almost 30 crimes are considered “designated felonies” in the state of Georgia, including several property offenses, such as smash and grab burglaries. Last year, however, almost two-fifths of the designated felons in the state’s youth developmental campuses (YDC) were assessed as “low-risk,” while approximately 40 percent of young people in Georgia YDCs in 2011 were detained for committing non-violent offenses.

The report suggest revising the state’s Designated Felony Act (DFA) to establish a two-class system that “continues to allow for restrictive custody in all designated felony (DF) cases while adjusting the dispositional sanctions to take into account both offense severity and risk level.”

Prior to entering state custody, the council suggests that young people be assessed for their likelihood of committing future crimes and given mental health screenings. They also believe that the state should refocus resources on evidence-based practices, as Georgia has yet to establish specified performance outcome measures to gauge the effectiveness of agency practices.

From 2002 to 2011, the state’s total out-of-home adjudicated juvenile population dropped from 2,973 to 1,917, with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stating that arrests of youth 16 and under dropped by nearly a quarter from 2008 to 2011. However, an estimated 65 percent of young people released from YDCs in Georgia either return to the juvenile justice system or become convicted as adults within three years, the report states.

According to the report, Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice allocated almost two-thirds of its $300 million-plus budget to operate the state’s juvenile detention facilities for the 2013 FY, with just one YDC bed tabulated to cost $91,126 annually.

“Despite a recent decline in the number of youth in the juvenile justice system, the cost to Georgia taxpayers remains substantial and the state has not received a sufficient return on its investment,” the report reads. “The policy recommendations will further focus the state’s use of expensive out-of-home facilities on serious, higher-risk youth. By doing this, the state will generate savings that can be used to increase the availability and effectiveness of community-based options.

Georgia DJJ Boss: Recent Firings at Troubled YDC are Only the Beginning

Two employees were ousted last week at Georgia’s troubled Augusta Youth Development Campus (YDC), and the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Commissioner, Avery D. Niles, promised executive-level dismissals would follow.

“There have been many personnel changes at Augusta YDC over the previous year and I can promise you, I’ll be making more,” Niles said in a DJJ press release.

In 2011, the YDC gained national prominence after a youth in custody, 19-year-old Jade Holder, died following a fight with another inmate. It was the first ever homicide inside a Georgia YDC, according to a state DJJ spokesperson. A subsequent investigation of the death found that the detention facility’s cell doors were not locked at the time of the fight, Augusta’s News Channel 6 reported.

The Augusta detention center drew close scrutiny in recent months following several security incidents. In October, five youth escaped from the facility, leading to the subsequent resignation of the site’s director, Ronald Brawner, JJIE reported. Just weeks later, on Dec. 2, a 15-year-old resident was hospitalized following an assault by another detainee, leading to a probe of the facility by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, according to The Augusta Chronicle.

Earlier this week, as part of that investigation, the YDC’s recently appointed interim director, Melvin Womble, was suspended, according to a DJJ spokesperson. Additionally, the facility’s school principal, Brenda James-Ford, and a corrections lieutenant were fired. According to DJJ Commissioner Niles, the investigation discovered several security and safety policy violations.

“This performance failure may have hindered the ability of other key staff members to prevent the assault and subsequent injury,” Niles said in a DJJ press release Dec. 12.

Ford was fired for failing to report a letter of reprimand she received in a different school district. She was accused of changing grades, however investigators in Augusta say they have found no evidence of grad changing since Ford was hired.

“With help from the GBI looking for any criminal violations, we will continue to seek out safety and security deficiencies as the DJJ investigations continue,” Niles said.

Photo by Maggie Lee. 

In Georgia: New Boss Takes over Department of Juvenile Justice

Avery Niles

The third commissioner within a little more than a year holds his first regular Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Board meeting, conducting workaday business on bonds and education, while a recruitment drive starts up.

“I thank the governor [Nathan Deal] and the DJJ Board for their confidence and I will work diligently to maintain their trust,” said Avery Niles upon his swearing-in. “We look forward to making real changes in the lives of our young offenders.” Niles, commissioner since Nov. 2, had been board chair and leaves his job as Hall County Correctional Institution warden to take over DJJ.

Audrey Armistad, associate superintendent of the DJJ school system announced that a pilot education program pushed by Deal will soon start up in south Georgia’s Eastman Regional Youth Detention Center.  That facility holds older youth on long-term sentences, some of whom have already graduated high school or gotten a GED.

“The governor has included us in an initiative he has that is going to work on soft skills and basic job readiness skills for the students that are in our facilities,” said Armistead.

Gov. Deal is a former juvenile court judge and has created a blue-ribbon commission charged with researching and recommending criminal justice reforms for adults as well as youth.

At the meeting, the DJJ board also approved the sale of a $1.6 million bond for facility improvements and renovations.

Nearly half the 15-member board joined only this year, with seven appointments and one re-appointment to five-year terms. Another appointment is due from Deal to fill the seat vacated when Niles was promoted to commissioner.

Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice headquarters

If the high turnover there is planned and regular, the turnover among detention center staff is, by contrast, a problem.

So the department is working on recruitment, as well as retention, said DJJ Director of Communications Jim Shuler.

A new website details all the work available at DJJ, and highlights a pay bonus available to veterans.  The department has also signed onto Deal’s new “Hire a Georgia Veteran” campaign launched last week.

On the retention side, the department recently graduated its first group of officers from the “Sergeant’s Academy.”

It’s a program that offers advanced training in decision-making, leadership, policy and other areas.

“It recharges their batteries,” said Shuler.

Both campaigns and others, started under the roughly year-long leadership of Gale Buckner, a former GBI officer named in response to the safety and security problems that had piled up at some facilities. She was named last year, just as the department was faced with the November beating death of an inmate in the Augusta Youth Detention Center.

Departing Georgia Juvenile Boss: Crisis Passed

After serving for nearly one year, Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Gale Buckner announces her departure, with a parting message for the agency, “the crisis stage is passed and we’re on to better opportunities.”

In November 2011, the department was beset with security and safety deficiencies, and Gov. Nathan Deal announced the appointment of Buckner, a career law enforcement officer, to the top job. The same day may have been the department’s worst: an inmate was beaten to death in Augusta’s youth detention center.

“I will be moving forward with my retirement from the state of Georgia,” she said at an Oct. 3 Board of Juvenile Justice meeting. Her departure is effective Nov. 1.

“I have been appointed by the Conasauga Judicial Circuit to take the role of chief magistrate in Murray County,” she said. Buckner had been scheduled to retire a year ago when Deal appointed her.

She came to the DJJ from the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. Before that, she was executive director of the Governor’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, preceded by a career at the GBI.

“I want to thank the commissioner for her work at a time when the agency was in dark days …” board Secretary Sandra Heath Taylor told the meeting.

“They have really been placing her in the hot spot to get everything running right and she has done that,” Bibb County Juvenile Court Judge Quintress Gilbert commented.

Compared to a year ago, the department is more stable, Buckner said. And staff can have more confidence in the tools and training at their disposal to do their jobs.

“For example, in our secure facilities, our folks are now in identifiable uniforms that are illustrating their authority as juvenile correctional officers,” she said.

On the training side, “we had correctional officers that didn’t know what gang signs meant … had no idea if they were gang signs, what they meant, what sort of groups that they had.”

Intelligence on gang membership was not being fed up the chain of command either. For example, if Court Services — staff working in intake, case management and other services — noted gang-affiliated tattoos on a young person, “a lot of times that information was not being forwarded when they went into our secure facilities.”

“Especially when you had competing gangs in the same facility,” that’s dangerous, Buckner said.

Contraband in secure facilities has “lessened tremendously” in the last year, Buckner noted: fewer homemade tattoo guns, cell phone charges and unauthorized food and clothes.

She said it’s because youth are now aware of the consequences of their behavior.

“Now they are told right from the start when they come in to a secure facility … that they will be held accountable both for their positive behaviors as well as for their problematic behavior.” There’s a reward system now in place, doling out privileges as simple as staying up later to watch TV or for breaking the rules, being placed in an area for a cool-down.

A program of building security upgrades is expected to be finished by the end of the year, things like more fencing, outside lighting and better doorlocks. Even the shower stalls are changing. Old-style stalls had pieces that could be chipped off and used for self-harm or as a weapon.

As for the rule book, Buckner said when she arrived there were “hundreds” of policies and procedures that were past the time they needed to be renewed or revised. A new website lists the most recent few dozen changes.

Also newly available via computer are kids’ DJJ school records. Previously, schools on the outside waited so long for paper DJJ school records that it delayed them getting into class. Now receiving schools can see what they need online.

The person who replaces Buckner is dealing with a very different population than just five or six years ago, a population under tighter supervision since her tenure began.

Both budget cuts and renovations at different facilities are contributing to a buildup of designated felons — the most violent, serious offenders — at facilities designed for short-term, less risky inmates.

Thus those less risky kids “are backing up into the community because our friends in the judicial community realize we’re at full capacity just dealing with the designated felons,” explained Buckner.

It’s up to the governor to name a permanent replacement for her.

The board unanimously elected chair Avery Niles, warden of the Hall County Correctional Institution as interim commissioner, effective from Buckner’s departure.

One Year in, Georgia Juvenile Justice Boss Departs

After one year in the job, Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Gale Buckner is retiring.

“I am guided to retire from State service after 31-plus years and to begin a career in local government,” Buckner said in a personal letter to department employees on Oct. 2.

Her retirement is effective November 1.

Buckner, a career law enforcement officer, also told employees that she had already been scheduled to retire in Nov. 2011 when Gov. Nathan Deal appointed her to lead the DJJ.

The day Deal announced the appointment, Nov. 7, 2011, an inmate was beaten to death at Augusta’s youth detention center, amidst agency-wide safety and security deficiencies.

“I have stayed with DJJ until that crisis was corrected and I am satisfied the agency is operating on a stable path,” she said.

Buckner now is “to be named Murray County Chief Magistrate,” according to a DJJ statement.

“Commissioner Buckner has done an excellent job and will be missed in her role with DJJ,” said Stephanie Mayfield, a spokesperson with the governor’s office.

It’s not clear who will take over as commissioner; the DJJ board is holding a special meeting on Oct. 3 with a “personnel” item on the agenda. Buckner’s predecessor held the job for less than one year.

Buckner came to the DJJ from the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. Before that, she was executive director of the Governor’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, preceded by a career at the GBI.

Mom, Teen Daughter Claim Guards Complicit in Attack at Georgia Detention Center

Whitney Bonds on the night she was attacked. Photo: Haley Bonds

Haley Bonds says she did everything she could think of to protect her 16-year-old daughter from the beatdown she was expecting at a youth jail in Northwest Georgia.

Yet, just 20 minutes after a supervisor assured her Whitney Bonds would be safe, another called Haley to say her daughter was "bleeding out" and being rushed to the emergency room. At the hospital, Haley said, doctors told her Whitney's nose had been "crushed" and she would need corrective surgery and dental work.

Whitney had just told a supervisor that two guards had bribed her and another girl to attack a third girl the night before, according to a written record of the complaint obtained by JJIE. The guards, she charged, threatened to "put out a hit on her" if she told anyone about it.

Her assailant made no mention of the guards' involvement, though. Instead, an incident report prepared by one of those guards says the girl told her that night, "She [Whitney] keep talking sh** and plus she jumped on [the other girl] so I went over there and knocked her ass out."

Whitney had returned to her cellblock and sat down next to a water fountain. A guard allowed another girl to get up for a drink of water, the incident report said, and the girl "started hitting Whitney Bonds in the face."

"She gave her permission to go get water knowing she was going to beat the crap out of my daughter," Whitney's mother said.

Whitney says she remembers little else about the attack, having blacked out after the girl started punching her in the face. "She just stood right in front of me," Whitney said. "The [guards] were right there."

The state Department of Juvenile Justice, which is wrapping up an internal investigation of the Dec. 7 incident, had little to say on the matter last week. "There is no criminal case involving DJJ staff members at this point," spokesman Jim Shuler wrote in an e-mail Wednesday.

Whitney Bonds in an earlier photo. Photo: Haley Bonds

Historically, Shuler said, "it's not uncommon to hear allegations of corrections officers instigating violence between residents in any  juvenile justice institutional setting." However, no such allegations have been confirmed since the new head of the agency, Gale Buckner, became DJJ's commissioner in November, he said.

Whitney, who is awaiting her day in court for her alleged role with three adults in an armed robbery, spent more than an hour last week talking about life inside the Bob Richards Regional Youth Detention Center near Rome, Ga., and the girls' often tense relationship with the adults guarding them.

The two fights, she said, followed a week of verbal abuse by several guards directed at Whitney and other girls.

Some guards routinely threatened the girls with profanities and racial epithets, calling them "pu*****" and "white bitches," Whitney said.

Sometimes, she said, officers tried to goad the girls into fighting them.

One supervisor threw a cup on water on her and called her a "pu*** ass mother******," Whitney said. Another guard who was present, and a counselor whom she told later, both laughed about it, she said.

Whitney believes she was beaten as retaliation for telling her mother about the guards' role in instigating the fight a day earlier.

The target of the earlier attack had been placed for disciplinary reasons in a classroom where a teacher but no officers were stationed. Two guards offered her and another girl McDonald's hamburgers and a Dr Pepper if they would assault her, she said.

The guards "didn't like her because she had a smart mouth," Whitney said. "They would pick on her and she'd fill out grievance forms."

Whitney acknowledged hitting the girl several times after sneaking up behind her.

"I just pretended to punch her a little bit," she said. "I didn't want to do it in the first place. ... I did it so they wouldn't put a hit on me and I would still get the stuff they said."

Whitney and the second assailant were pulled off in a minute or two, she said, and locked in their cells. After she threatened to tell her mother what happened, one guard taunted her through the cell door, she said, yelling that she'd charge her with terroristic threats and sue her and her family if Whitney did so.

"She said she was going to whup my family [and] whup me," Whitney said. (That guard was later fired, DJJ said, for failing to complete her cadet training.)

Whitney said she confirmed to another officer that night that the guards had put her up to the fight.

The next night, her mother said, Whitney entered the visitation room crying and told her mom what happened. “She said, ‘They're going to jump me. They will do it . ... They're going to hurt me,’” Haley Bonds said.

Haley said she called over a supervising officer so Whitney could tell him about the threats. The officer listened and promised Whitney would be safe.

Leaving the RYDC shortly after 8 p.m., Haley ran into that officer again outside. Haley said she made the officer promise Whitney would be safe.

“He said, ‘I've already taken care of it. I've talked to my officers. Nothing is going to happen to her,’” Bonds said.

At 8:24 p.m., just as Haley arrived at her home in Rome, a sergeant from the RYDC called her. “He said, ‘Miss Bonds, your daughter's bleeding out. ... She's lost a lot of blood.’”

Haley said a state official told her that the guards in question would remain on the job during the investigation, but would have no contact with youths in the facility. Whitney was returned to the RYDC later that night but stayed in a booking room isolated from the other girls.

Four days after the fight, though, Whitney had been returned to her cellblock and two of the same guards were present when Haley came to visit. Whitney recognized a voice coming from the control room that day as a third guard who had threatened her, Whitney said.

Haley called a state DJJ investigator, who immediately arranged to have Whitney transferred to a youth prison in Dalton. The guards were reassigned the next day, DJJ officials say.

Several weeks later, Whitney was fitted for an ankle monitor and released on bond.

Whitney “has been the best child” since then, Haley said. “She gave her testimony at church ... She said she knew God was with her through everything she's been through.”

Some days are rougher, though. "She cried all day yesterday," Haley Bonds said in early February.

Whitney's mother said authorities have repeatedly urged her to file charges against the girl accused in the assault. But she won't.

"I say the adults are the ones responsible for my daughter's beating," Bonds wrote in a Dec. 30 letter to DJJ Commissioner Buckner. "This was pre-meditated and that's where I want justice is with the adults."

 

Main Photo: Jim Walls

UPDATE: Gale Buckner Named New Georgia Juvenile Justice Commissioner

L. Gale Buckner has been named the new commissioner of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Buckner was a long-time agent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and currently serves as Vice Chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Current DJJ commissioner Amy Howell will join the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) as General Counsel at the request of Gov. Nathan Deal. In 2010, state and federal officials reached an agreement that places DBHDD’s focus on community-based care following a three-year investigation by the U.S. Justice Department into allegations DBHDD was violating patients’ civil rights.

“As the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities implements the state’s settlement with the federal Department of Justice, I wanted to put Commissioner Amy Howell’s experience and skill set to work on that important task,” Deal said in a press release. “Commissioner Frank Shelp and I are excited that she has agreed to take on this job. The timing of this has worked out great as it comes near the end of Gale Buckner’s tenure on Pardons and Paroles. Gale Buckner has given the state years of excellent service, and she boasts an impressive resume in law enforcement. I appreciate her willingness to take on this new role.”

Buckner will be the second DJJ commissioner of the last three to come from the Board of Pardons and Paroles when their term expired. Howell’s predecessor, Garland Hunt, was formerly chairman of the Board. Buckner will be succeeded on the Board by James Mills.

Howell, a former assistant public defender in the DeKalb County, Ga. Juvenile Court, first joined the DJJ in 2005 as legal services director. A year later she was named deputy commissioner. According to her biography on the DJJ website, Howell managed many different divisions within the DJJ including legal services, apprehensions and medical and behavioral health.

Howell issued a letter to DJJ staff members last week thanking them for their service and announcing her departure.

“I have counted every day that I was Commissioner,” she wrote, “to ensure that I took full advantage of the opportunity to serve and improve our agency.”

Writing to her staff she continued:

I have tremendous respect and awe for DJJ staff’s unwavering commitment to helping youth and keeping our community safe.  On the difficult days, recall the positive impact you have had – when former youth call to say  they’ve found and kept jobs, have finished school, gotten married, or started their own family and are happy. These are the stories of your success.

Concluding the letter she wrote, “Remember, offer hope and youth change.”

The tone of Howell's letter doesn't ring true for some current and former employees at DJJ. One source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, painted a picture of an oppressive atmosphere at DJJ that had set in essentially since the day former Commissioner Amy Howell took over in January 2011.

Citing numerous high-level firings, demotions and reassignments, the source said a good culture at the agency has “basically been destroyed.”

Another source who declined to be identified, referred to Howell as being a “novice at management,” saying that her tactics included firings, demotions and reassignments to difficult jobs.

The flow of information within the DJJ had also been hindered, a source said. Referring to an October riot in a DeKalb youth detention center, the source said virtually no one inside the DJJ was made aware of the incident that involved more than half of the 64 inmates in the facility.

One former employee to the DJJ, Clifford Hamilton, says he believes Howell fired him from his job as director of alcohol and drug rehabilitation at two Georgia Youth Detention Centers in July.

“I have never been able to understand it,” said Hamilton. “They never warned me, never told me anything. I had just been promoted and received the highest professional evaluation. I was never told anything was wrong.

“Amy Howell fired a lot of people,” Hamilton continued. “She fired them or she forced them out and I believe it was her decision for it to happen to me.”

Hamilton said he was told that he had violated a policy, but it was never explained what policy. He also says his termination was a result of an incident at the Eastman YDC that result in injuries to staff and inmates, including one serious injury to a juvenile.

“I fail to see how I had anything to do with that at all,” he said.

When asked to comment on the allegations, a spokesperson for the Governor's office responded, "Commissioner Howell sought to build the best team possible. The Governor has entrusted Commissioner Howell with a position of great responsibility. That’s why there is a change in leadership."

In recent days, Howell came under fire from a local Atlanta television station when it was discovered she had been receiving a monthly car allowance of more than $580, along with access to a state-owned car. The television station, WSB-TV, reported the state stopped approving car allowances in 2005. WSB-TV also reported a mileage log for the vehicle failed to account for more than 2,000 miles. The log showed only Howell and two close associates used the car, which the state leases for nearly $500 per month.

Howell reimbursed the state for $4,100, the amount of the car allowance she received minus taxes paid. WSB-TV reported the two previous DJJ commissioners also received car allowances but could not determine who approved the funds.

You can read JJIE's previous coverage of Amy Howell here.

Editor's note: This article has been altered to add an assertion by Clifford Hamilton this it is his belief that Amy Howell was responsible for his firing.

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Stakeholders, Foster Kids Speak Out On Georgia Juvenile Code Rewrite

Former foster children speak before Georgia House Judiciary Committee members.

The stakeholder organizations involved in Georgia’s Juvenile Code Rewrite legislation are still providing input for the sweeping revision of the state’s 40-year-old juvenile law.

Representatives from a diverse array of child welfare organizations shared their respective views on HB 641 at a standing-room only hearing before House Judiciary Committee members Thursday.

Overwhelming support for the effort – now roughly seven years in the making – was repeatedly voiced during the two-hour gathering at the state capitol, along with critical suggestions for improvement. The rewrite has received commitments from Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia House and Senate leadership to ready the measure for a vote in the 2012 legislative session.

“I think we’re finding out that a lot of people have concerns and they’re coming together to make this a good piece of legislation,” says committee chairman Rep. Wendell Willard (R- Sandy Springs), of the presentations made by organizations such as the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, Court Appointed State Advocate (CASA) and Interfaith Children's Movement. “It was very encouraging to me. Hopefully by January we will have a bill that is ready to move forward.”

Kirsten Widner, policy director for the Emory University School of Law’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center says she was pleased with the outcome of the hearing and one held earlier in the week.

“I’m so pleased to see the excitement of the stakeholders,” says Widner, who has been instrumental in shaping the code rewrite legislation. “I look forward to working with the stakeholders on working out the few remaining issues. It’s a really good feeling to know we’re all here working together for the best interest of Georgia’s children.”

Voices for Georgia’s Children Advocacy Director Polly McKinney agrees.

“It does my heart good to see so many people coming together for the benefit of our children,” she says.

Some of the key concerns raised about the measure during the hearing include:

  • Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia – The provision requiring district attorneys (D.A.’s) statewide to actively participate in juvenile court proceedings, which is not currently required. “A large part of the state is uncovered as far as juvenile prosecutors,” says Kermit McManus, a D.A. over the Conasauga (Ga.) Judicial Court. “If this bill is passed as is, we will need more full-time juvenile prosecutors across the state. It really comes down to an issue of money.”
  • Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges – The provision requiring every child to be represented by a lawyer in court proceedings. “In light of these tough economic times, we’ve reached a point where we’ve cut all the fat and we’re down to the meat,” says Cherokee County Juvenile Court Judge John Sumner. “I’m concerned about this unfunded mandate. Our concern is that we’ll have lawyers in court but no [money leftover to fund] services for the kids and their families.”
  • Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice – The provision requiring juveniles be relegated to secure confinement on a 60-day cycle, as opposed to the current 30-day cycle. “I’m concerned about the fiscal impact,” says Commissioner Amy Howell. “We feel that there are other options or a combination of options that would better ease the child’s transition back into the community. For example, 30 days in secure confinement followed by 30 days of electronic monitoring or time in an evening reporting center.”
  • Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers – Objections to the cost of funding the provision requiring that every child is represented by a lawyer in court proceedings. “We feel very strongly that every child should be represented by legal council in every delinquency case,” says Atlanta attorney Sandra Michaels. “If a child is facing any loss of freedom he or she should have an attorney no matter what the cost. We need to make sure that we’re not being penny wise and pound foolish.”
  • Association of County Commissioners The financial cost of implementing the proposed code statewide. “We suggest a thorough fiscal note be done on both the federal and state levels,” says Debra Nesbit, the organization’s associate legislative director for health and human services and public safety and the courts. “We think we deserve, and the taxpayers deserve, to see what the true cost is going to be.”

Highlights of the hearing were the closing comments made by three former foster children, who shared their very personal accounts of the perils they experienced first-hand on both the delinquency and deprivation sides of the state’s juvenile system.

Kendra Brownlee, 25, shared her treacherous ordeal of abuse and enduring 14 foster home placements in one calendar year, along with the delinquency she carried out as a result of her experience. Twenty-year-old Michael Powell, highlighted the critical need for sibling groups to be placed together. At one point, he says, he and his three brothers were apart for four straight years. Giovan Bazan, 22, of the Georgia Youth Empowerment Initiative non-profit, indicates that he was in the foster system from the age of 11 months until one year ago. He ultimately ended up in the custody of the state Department of Juvenile Justice for delinquency. His time in confinement was extended beyond the designated length by several years, he says, due to a lack of availability of suitable housing placement options.

All three agree that the code rewrite is a positive move for Georgia, but they also share concerns that the voice of the children affected often gets drowned out in the bureaucratic process.

“I was really frustrated by [the presenting organizations] focus on cost,” adds Bazan. “In light of these tough economic times it is to be expected, but if you have the best interest of the children at heart you will make whatever changes that need to be made no matter what.”

Powell and Brownlee share similar views.

“A lot of people don’t see the foster kid’s point of view; they only see a few random incidents,” Powell says. “They don’t know what’s really happening in the system. I’m glad I could be here today. I feel like I was making an impact for all of the foster kids still in the system.”

Adds Brownlee: “Foster kids need required mentors to help us navigate through life and to make better choices,” she contends. “How can we do better if no one is there to teach us? We need more wraparound services.”

Brownlee, calls the code rewrite “little steps” toward the need for “big change.”

The provisions in HB 641 would comprehensively revise Title 15, Chapter 11 of the Official Code of Georgia relating to juvenile courts and the cases they hear. The process of rewriting the code actually began in 2004 as a proposal by the late Judge Robin Nash, then president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges.  The Juvenile Law Committee of the State Bar of Georgia’s Young Lawyers Division took on the task, with funding from the Georgia Bar Foundation. Five drafts were completed before a model code was ready for the public in 2008. In 2005, a state legislative study committee began looking at the need for rewriting the code. In 2006, the Brunswick-based Sapelo Foundation pulled together the JUSTGeorgia organizations, to advocate for children. JUSTGeorgia’s first major undertaking was the proposed new code.

Another version, known as SB 292, was introduced in the Georgia Senate in 2009, but failed to make it to the floor for a vote by the end of the two-year legislative term. It was reintroduced in the last legislative session and nicknamed the “Children’s Code Rewrite” by local child advocacy groups.