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Monday, July 22, 2013

Suspended DJJ investigators return to work as number of unresolved cases grow

Posted By on Mon, Jul 22, 2013 at 5:43 PM

Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles
  • Courtesy DJJ
  • Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles
Nearly 20 Department of Juvenile Justice investigators suspended over a glut of unresolved abuse reports returned to work this morning after a month-long internal investigation, state officials announced over the weekend.

The department's entire investigative unit, including its supervisor, was suspended with pay last month after a federal survey found that a number of Georgia's juvenile detention facilities ranked among the worst in the nation for instances of sexual abuse. At the time DJJ found evidence that at least 20 cases - some dating back to 2012 - had not been investigated in a timely manner.

Since then the number of still open investigations under the DJJ's jurisdiction has grown to roughly 700 covering the past 18 months, DJJ Communications Director Jim Shuler said in a statement (PDF). Department policy dictates all cases be closed within a 45-day period. Of the 700 unresolved cases, 275 included "some sexual connotation" in the original report.

An advisory board appointed by DJJ Commissioner Avery Niles to review the backlog of incomplete investigations found 12 cases of staff-on-youth sexual abuse that were not fully investigated and remained open.

The DJJ confirmed three cases of sexual abuse between staff members and inmates.

"All three of those corrections officers were terminated," Niles said in a release. "DJJ immediately referred two of those staff members to outside law enforcement for prosecution."

UPDATE: The third was also referred to the local district attorney's office, Shuler says, but didn't meet threshold for prosecution.

The state's Department of Corrections will head up the remaining cases as DJJ implements reforms aimed at "restoring accountability" to the unit.

The former investigations director was demoted and reassigned to another division within the DJJ. All four regional investigative heads were either demoted or reassigned. One of the 18 suspended investigators chose to retire, one was demoted and reassigned, and the rest returned to their previous positions after "various levels of appropriate written counseling and Administrative Corrective Action," Shuler said.

"Youth safety is at stake and we have pledged to maintain a sexually safe environment for all our residents," Commissioner Niles said. "That means taking immediate corrective actions to ensure all reports of sexual abuse and harassment are quickly and thoroughly investigated according to DJJ Policy and state and federal law."

The advisory board assigned to investigate the findings outlined a number of factors contributing to the backlog of cases, including multiple leadership changes, a shift in agency goals, and outdated technologies, internal policies, and procedures.

DJJ's current round of reforms were triggered after a U.S. Department of Justice survey found that kids serving time in one of metro Atlanta's juvenile lockups had a nearly one in three chance of being victimized sexually. Paulding County's Regional Youth Detention Center, or RYDC, ranked the worst in the country with 32 percent of kids surveyed reporting sexual abuse by a staff member. Three other state-run facilities were among the worst in the nation.

The study has been criticized for its small sample sizes. At the Paulding RYDC, for instance, 29 incarcerated youth were interviewed, with nine reporting some form of sexual abuse from a staff member.

The shake-up comes at a time when Georgia is in the midst of revamping numerous aspects of its juvenile justice system and how it functions. Part of the reforms provide more funding to pay for community-based alternatives aimed at keeping more kids out of jail. Similar programs have shown more positive results than sentencing young offenders to lockup in other states. It will take effect in Georgia at the beginning of 2014.

Seventeen of Georgia's 27 youth detention facilities took part in the 2012 survey. You can read the full report here (PDF).

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