Georgia's Department of Juvenile Justice late yesterday suspended 19 investigators and the unit's former chief after it revealed that more than 20 unfinished cases of sexual abuse allegations were not investigated in a timely manner.
"It is a disturbing breach of confidence and fundamentally unacceptable," Commissioner Avery Niles said in a release (PDF). "These investigators have a duty to protect our youth and employees and to uphold the most basic standards of professional behavior."
The move came barely a week after a federal report showed that four Georgia juvenile detention facilities ranked among the worst in the nation for instances of sexual abuse. Paulding County's short-term lockup topped the list. The department launched a special advisory committee in response to the report. Its findings led to yesterday's suspensions.
Internal investigations are supposed to be wrapped up within 45 days, according to department policy, yet 20 cases of alleged sexual abuse remained open despite being filed in 2012. The agency has called on the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Department of Corrections to help examine the outstanding cases and federal survey results.
DJJ recently hired a new chief investigator to "conduct a comprehensive top-to-bottom reorganization of the Office of Investigations" even before the report was released last week, according to spokesperson Jim Shuler.
The agency has made a number of changes in recent years following a series of high-profile and sometimes violent incidents at detention centers throughout the state. Last year, the DJJ created a top-level position to focus on the oversight of detention facilities, launched a new training program for juvenile corrections officers, and implemented a tip-line was report abuse, along with other fixes meant to safeguard kids in lockup.
The most recent round of turmoil comes at a time when Georgia is revamping some aspects of its juvenile justice system, including providing more funding to pay for community-based alternatives aimed at keeping more kids out of jail. While the reforms free up an additional $5 million for the task, the DJJ has been operating on a substantially reduced budget since the start of the economic recession. It's also had trouble retaining qualified workers for some positions.
The investigators have been suspended with pay "pending an investigation into alleged failure to carry out their assigned duties in a timely manner," Niles says. He also said this move is the first step in restoring the investigative department's credibility and examining each of the outstanding reports of abuse.
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