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"Welcome to hell": Part III

This article was published June 14, 1998 at 5:02 a.m.

On April 6, three Democrat-Gazette editors interviewed DHS Director Lee Frazier about a variety of DYS problems, particularly the abuse allegations and management problems at O&A.

At that point, conflicting versions of what had been done to safeguard children at the center began to surface.

Frazier said Whitney and Warford had discussed the O&A report with him on July 7, 1997, and again on July 27. He said he had asked them to investigate and take the sternest of measures to protect children and staff.

He said he had "basically approved the recommendations that Ruth Whitney came forward with."

Whitney had requested new positions and was especially interested in hiring administrators for higher-salaried slots called Grade 99s. Those employees were not subject to state employee grievance procedures and could be fired at will.

Whitney and Warford said they felt that would make facility directors more accountable and would allow DYS to remove them easily if they were not doing their jobs. Division facility directors are now Grade 24s and can retain their jobs for months through extensive appeals.

"We run the only DHS institutions where our directors aren't Grade 99s," Warford said. "The 99s and the additional positions were to provide supervision at night and on the weekends at O&A."

The proposed O&A positions also would have allowed the center to open a protective-custody unit. "When a juvenile alleged abuse, we wanted to segregate him," Warford said. "That way, the staff involved or their friends who worked at O&A could not intimidate the juvenile. We never got the additional employees."

Frazier said the state Department of Finance and Administration had nixed the request. "Based on conversations with DF&A, they would not agree to the 99s because Ruth already had people in supervisory positions," he said.

However, a memo disclosed by DHS in response to a Freedom of Information Act request suggested that Frazier had not approved the positions.

On Aug. 4, 1997, Whitney asked Frazier in writing for the new employees. "Lee denied my request for Grade 99 positions but indicated he had spoken to Bob Brown [director of the Division of Administrative Services responsible for personnel] regarding three Grade 26 positions for facility directors. I telephoned Bob Brown the following day. Mr. Brown indicated that Lee had not talked to him,'' Whitney wrote.

On Feb. 6, 1998, Whitney again pleaded with Frazier for more employees at O&A and the Alexander campus. Frazier had transferred positions out of DYS to help two other divisions he considered in more critical need of employees.

"The Division is not in compliance with industry staffing standards and serious problems have occurred in our facilities recently due to inadequate staffing ratios and insufficient staff to support our current juvenile population," she wrote.

"I consider [these employees] critical to the long-term success of our juveniles. I consider the problems we have experienced as serious that can be solved only through a concerted effort to increase staff."

Frazier never responded to her memo, Whitney said.

Frazier said Whitney's memo did not require a response. "Ruth had the authority to hire and fire," he said. "She's had the authority to act on every issue she's brought to me. She did not need my permission."

Contradictory stories emerged again when Frazier was asked by the Democrat-Gazette about abuse at the O&A and the chaos Warford had discovered under facility director Gary Rogers.

Q. Do you believe that some of the juveniles in the DYS are being hit by members of the staff?

A. I don't believe so.

Q. Not with fists?

A. No.

Q. With open hands?

A. No. I don't have any indication of it. I've heard that kids have been slapped primarily from kids."

Frazier had never visited the O&A center. But he said he had talked with five boys, now adults, who had once been at the center. They had assured him that they were never hit by staff members. In fact, they told him it was a game to provoke the staff. Frazier refused to provide their names.

Frazier said when he was briefed on Warford's O&A report and Rogers' management: "My first instincts were to clean house."

He said Rogers was still at the DHS because Whitney and Warford wanted Rogers to stay.

However, Whitney and Warford said they asked Frazier to fire Rogers because of ongoing problems at the center. Frazier "made it clear he would not support termination," Whitney stated in a memo.

Instead, on Sept. 16, 1997, Rogers asked to be moved to a nonsupervisory position outside of O&A, which was a demotion. In exchange, all investigations of his actions would be dropped.

Rogers denied any wrongdoing and said overcrowding at O&A, lack of staff training and the inadequate facility resulted in "an impossible situation to manage." He is now special projects manager for the DYS.

Several other of the main players at the division also left.

In March, Whitney was promoted to acting director of the Division of County Operations.

Larance Johnson became acting DYS director. That made her Warford's boss.

But ultimately she was told to resign.

"Larance had blind spots on conditions and the environment at O&A," Frazier said. "She could not help me fix something she could not see. There was not enough outrage that had translated into aggressive actions on her part."

Johnson told the Democrat-Gazette: "A good manager doesn't get outraged. You have to have a calm, cool mind in order to come up with the best solution for the problem. I could see the problem. I just couldn't get it fixed. I was only in the job six weeks."

At the same time, Warford was assigned to Coniglio to help with investigations of DHS.

Warford said he misses some of the employees who "bordered on sainthood" for their dedication to helping the kids. But those people were the exceptions."

"I had big dreams of programs and plans when I first went to O&A," Warford said. "Over and over I have seen plans developed to fix the place. But the plans never got implemented. There is an incredible amount of resistance on the part of state workers to change. At O&A, that resistance became out-and-out defiance.

"O&A is a hellhole. At the end, all I could do was try to keep the kids safe and keep the staff awake."

On April 6, while Frazier was expressing his belief that conditions were not dangerous at the center, two things had occurred.

At 7:45 a.m., the boys in Unit 2 rushed from their rooms during morning leisure time and began to riot. They flipped over tables and threw chairs. One boy hit a guard with a chair. The guard slapped him and made him sit on the floor. The boys were put back in their cells.

"Juveniles continued to threaten staff and shake the bars, saying 'send us to the county jail," an incident report stated.

And during Frazier's interview with reporters, a frantic mother tried to call Frazier to report her son had been sexually assaulted at the O&A center. She talked with a secretary and said Frazier has never returned her calls. Frazier said he never received a message from the mother.

Eight days later, another teen-ager was hit at the Alexander Youth Services Center by a staff member trying to subdue him. The boy was treated at a hospital. Five staples were needed to close a cut in his head.

On April 15, a concerned Democrat-Gazette reporter briefed Coniglio, who has headed the DHS Office of Chief Counsel since February. She looked into the allegations and called the governor's office.

Frazier inspected O&A on April 22 and said he was appalled at what he saw. He blamed Whitney and Warford for not telling him how serious the situation was.

On April 24, Huckabee called his press conference and vowed that DYS would be cleaned up. It was exactly a year since Warford first went to O&A.

On May 26, Coniglio asked the state police to determine who knew of the abuse in DYS facilities, when they knew it and if they responded properly.

And what happened to David G., the boy whose story first set off the abuse investigation?

In the summer of 1997, state police investigator Plumb sent her reports on David G. to the Pulaski County prosecutor's office.

She included the alleged rape.

At the time of the incident in March 1997, the on-call facility doctor was out of town and a visiting psychiatrist performed a rectal exam. That test showed positive for blood and revealed a half- to three-quarter-inch-long tear above the rectum. Four days later, David was taken to a hospital, but the doctor did not find any sign of injury.

Plumb also investigated assault, battery, endangering a minor and contributing to the delinquency of a minor allegations for the incident in which Johnson told the Democrat-Gazette that David was taken to the cell and left with bigger boys to be scared.

A nurse's injury markup sheet showed that David had bruises and red marks on his upper left arm and red marks on both lower forearms.

Another assault allegation involving David G. was included in her report. In that incident, a youth services worker allegedly pulled David out of a shower, picked him up by his waist and threw him on a table. He fell off the table and hit another chair and the wall, David said.

Pictures at the time showed: a brownish bruise around his waist, reddish scratches on his left side, a brownish bruise on his upper right shoulder, a reddish bruise on his right arm and a brownish bruise on his upper and lower back leg.

A fourth allegation was sent to the prosecutor involving another boy. A youth services worker allegedly choked that boy at the O&A center while trying to subdue him.

Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney W.A. McCormick declined to file charges, citing "insurmountable problems regarding unsubstantiated allegations, lack of corroboration and inconsistencies within the statements of the alleged victims."

However, he added: "While the files do contain disturbing allegations ... these are matters that should be submitted for review by DHS in terms of administrative sanctions."

Ten employees received some form of discipline in the David G. case in 1997. The staff member involved in the hogtying resigned.

David G.'s time with the DYS continues to be plagued by abuse.

On May 10, 1998, David was at the Alexander Youth Services Center. A fight started. Afterward, David made a remark to a youth services worker. Chaplain Frank Green saw that worker hit the boy hard enough that David fell to the floor.

The worker denied striking the boy. Another worker said David fell because the floor just had been waxed.

At first, the boy told facility administrators that he had not been hit. He later told Gary Staggs, now a DYS internal affairs investigator, that another worker promised him he would get his privileges back if he did not report the incident.

Staggs concluded that David G. had been abused. Staggs reported that the floors had not been waxed in that area and David had been coerced into lying by staff members. Administrative hearings are pending for the workers involved.

Ironically, in a May 11 memo in that case file, a unit manager who did not witness the incident accused Green of lying.

"This has been an ongoing problem with him. He has a history of not telling the truth," she wrote of the chaplain. "Furthermore, this does very little for staff morale when they see that he is able to do what he wants with no consequences whatsoever."

Three days later, Green became her boss when he was named DYS director of operations. He is second in command to division Director Paul Doramus, who took the helm June 1.

Green said all abuse allegations will be taken seriously.

"We are going to be just as loyal toward our employees as we want them to be toward us," he said. "If the juveniles are being rough on employees, we are going to be just as rough on them legally. But if staff is abusing those kids, we're not going to settle for just firing. We're going to see that charges are filed.

"We're going to set a standard, and then we are going to enforce it. A new sun will shine on all the dark corners of DYS."

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