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"Welcome to hell"

Troubled youths in state custody face "lesson-teaching" beatings, filthy quarters, cramped cells, unwanted sex and caretakers who don't care.

By MARY HARGROVE

This article was published June 14, 1998 at 4:58 a.m.

We accepted everything except the loss of our children.

When you look at us now you will see a big hole in our hearts.

That is so our children can climb back in.

-- Pueblo Reflections by Nancy Wood

LIKE ANY 14-YEAR-OLD, David G. really knew how to irritate adults. As a juvenile in the custody of the state, he was obnoxiously defiant.

LIKE ANY 14-YEAR-OLD, David G. really knew how to irritate adults. As a juvenile in the custody of the state, he was obnoxiously defiant.

When a youth services worker demanded he come out of his cell, David laughed, bent over and passed gas at the man.

The boy, judged delinquent for third-degree battery, was also distressingly troubled. He had been treated at five psychiatric centers. When he was frustrated, he would repeatedly bang his head against the concrete wall of his cell at the Central Arkansas Observation and Assessment Center in North Little Rock. The center is operated by the Division of Youth Services, a part of the state Department of Human Services.

On March 16, 1997, David was taken upstairs to a Quiet Room, a "timeout" cell for troublemakers. His brown jumpsuit was taken away. He wore only underwear. Two older, bigger boys in green jumpsuits were already in the 11-by-11-foot cell.

"Beat him up and do him good. Don't leave any marks," the staff member ordered, according to the two older boys.

During the next 30 minutes, numerous staff members and other teen-agers heard David repeatedly screaming and crying for help. He was beaten, spat on, slapped and taunted. He said the older boys twisted a sheet into knots and beat him with it, according to a state police report.

Then, he said, he was held down while one of the boys stuck a broom handle into his rectum.

He was removed from the area for a few hours. And then, despite his desperate pleas to be left alone, the sobbing boy was taken back to the Quiet Cell where two other boys slapped him, threw water on him and hit him in the head with combs and brushes while cursing him.

When David reported the alleged beatings and rape to a teacher, Arkansas State Police investigator Dorothy Plumb was assigned to the case. She declined to be interviewed for this story. But transcripts of her interviews with the boy show she was skeptical at first.

"David, this is kinda hard to believe," she said.

"I am telling the truth," the boy insisted.

Over the next few weeks, Plumb would change her mind. The four boys involved confirmed the beatings but denied the rape.

David's name surfaced in another abuse allegation. This time, a staff member hogtied him and placed the screaming boy face down on the concrete floor in his underwear. Hogtying children is forbidden in state institutions. It is considered cruel and unusual punishment and is an offense reportable to the state Child Abuse Hot Line.

The nightmarish treatment of David G. is not an isolated case. It is one of dozens of abusive incidents buried in state files or in the memories of staff members and children too frightened or too discouraged to report them.

A year-long investigation by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has uncovered a state juvenile delinquency system in which:

Children have been routinely degraded; verbally, physically and sexually abused; hogtied; forced to sleep outside in freezing weather; and threatened with punishment and even death by staff members if the children report the abuse.

Staff members have slugged children in the face and then refused to allow them to be treated by a nurse. They have locked children naked in cells overnight after turning the air conditioning on high.

Troubled youths as young as 11 have been taken away from their parents and placed in the state's custody only to be subjected to the whims of untrained staff members, some with criminal backgrounds.

The allegations of abuse have been verified. They involve employees at the O&A, the Alexander Youth Services Center and sporadic incidents at the two serious-offender camps operated by Associated Marine Institutes, a Florida corporation.

The Arkansas juvenile justice system will face worldwide scrutiny when Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, appear before Craighead County Circuit-Chancery Judge Ralph Wilson Jr. for a hearing in juvenile court. That hearing was scheduled for this week but has been postponed and has not been rescheduled.

The boys have been at a detention center since the March 24 shooting deaths of four students and a teacher at Westside Middle School near Jonesboro. Ten other people were wounded in that attack. Under Arkansas law, children under 14 cannot be tried as adults.

If the judge declares the boys delinquent, they probably will be sent to the O&A for evaluation and then to the lockdown unit of the Alexander Youth Services Center.

The story of David G. is eerily similar to an April 1998 allegation of sexual assault and abuse that a Democrat-Gazette reporter presented to DHS Chief Counsel Jonann Coniglio in an attempt to protect children from further abuse.

Gov. Mike Huckabee called a press conference April 24, vowing that all children in state custody would be protected.

"Kids are going to be given a level of protection that apparently they may not have been," Huckabee said. "And every effort is being made to not jeopardize their safety."

But children in DYS facilities are in danger.

Officials cannot guarantee that their staffs will be able to protect the Jonesboro area boys from attacks by teen-agers angry about the shootings. Some teen-agers have boasted they will hurt the boys.

And DYS also cannot be sure that Mitchell and Andrew -- who will undoubtedly be locked up until they turn 18 -- will not be abused by the staff.

Arkansas' juvenile justice system has been reformed twice in the past decade.

In 1987, the Arkansas Supreme Court declared the system unconstitutional. Two years later, children had their own court system, complete with judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys.

In 1991, the state was sued in federal court for abusive conditions at the Pine Bluff Youth Services Center. That facility warehoused more than 200 children. The dormlike facilities were overcrowded and understaffed. Allegations of abuse were not being investigated. Kids were attacking other kids.

"The major complaint was that there was simply no security from violence," said Rogers attorney James Luffman, who filed the suit. "Kids were running the show themselves, and in some instances, there were indications the guards were using bigger, tougher juveniles as enforcers."

The state settled the case quickly and agreed to federal monitoring of the institution.

In 1993, the Pine Bluff campus was closed and replaced with a system of smaller facilities considered more conducive to rehabilitation and incarceration.

Reform was in the air. A special 1993 legislative session called by then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker on children's issues seemed to herald new proposals.

The new system received a lot of publicity but only a fraction of the money needed to prevent escalating juvenile crime and to effectively treat the children it had in custody.

The DYS had existed years before but had been folded back into another division of the DHS. It was revived again in 1993 and charged with supervising juvenile delinquents and the Families In Need of Services (FINS) programs.

Ruth Whitney was DYS director in March 1997 when the David G. incident occurred. She faced a dilemma.

State police investigator Plumb had complained to her state police supervisor that O&A Director Gary Rogers was impeding the investigation.

A security guard alerting Plumb to other abuse claims was admonished by Rogers, who wanted all abuse complaints funneled through him.

Furthermore, Rogers insisted Plumb limit her investigation to the David G. case. Plumb had broadened her scope. Staff members and youths at the facility had provided an array of allegations to Plumb that they said had never been investigated.

Rogers asked employees about Plumb's interviews and faxed the information to DYS Director of Operations Larance Johnson at the central office in downtown Little Rock.

Johnson supported Rogers' actions. "The state police didn't stay focused on the incident. They went way off to the left field," she told the Democrat-Gazette.

She said Plumb was upsetting the facility by not following procedure. If anything else were uncovered, the allegation was to be called into the Child Abuse Hot Line. Hot-line workers would determine if an outside investigation were needed.

If the hot line did not bring investigators in, DYS would do its own investigation to determine if policies had been followed.

"What we needed her [Plumb] to do is to focus on the particular incident. Tell us what else she found in a follow-up memo," Johnson said. "Right then, we were trying to deal with this young man. It seems like we could never get to the end of the assault for her moving to other things."

Johnson said Rogers had heard complaints from the staff members about how they were being treated during their interviews with the state police. The staff put their statements in writing.

Rogers felt that Plumb's investigation was biased against black employees. At that time, 97 percent of the approximately 105 staff members who dealt directly with the children were black. Johnson and Rogers are black. Plumb is white.

There were only three white workers dealing directly with the kids, and they were reporting most of the kids' abuse allegations.

The entire O&A staff was 80 percent black. Among the children, 70 percent were black and 30 percent were white. Abuse allegations involved black children and white children.

"Plumb's investigation smelled funny, but I don't want to use the race card," Johnson said.

Whitney was surprised by the controversy. In November, four months before Plumb began the David G. inquiry, several white staff members at the O&A center had complained to the DHS Special Investigations Unit that abuse allegations were not being investigated at O&A. They also insisted that there was serious tension between black and white staff members.

Concerned, Whitney set up a DYS committee to look at several issues, including racial tension and abuse reporting. Its findings, released April 8, 1997 -- just days after Plumb arrived -- stated that neither abuse nor racial tension appeared to be problems at O&A.

On April 24, 1997, Whitney reassigned Johnson and Rogers. She ordered Lloyd Warford to find out what, if anything, was going on at the O&A.

Warford, a former deputy prosecuting attorney in Pulaski County, had been with the division a year, evaluating contracts and community-based services.

"Abuse was not going to be tolerated while I was in charge," Whitney said. "I directed him to physically relocate to O&A because of the conflicting information I was receiving."

On May 18, 1997, a shocked Warford wrote a memo to Whitney outlining his impressions of the North Little Rock center. "Within 72 hours of assuming control of the facility, I was convinced that the monitoring reports you were receiving were grossly inaccurate," he wrote.

Warford reported:

Staff members were openly hostile and uncooperative.

The handful of staff members who did write up abuse allegations felt threatened by co-workers.

Abuse reports had been destroyed or removed from the facility.

The assessment staff -- the reason the facility existed -- had little or no contact with the youths they were assessing. The assessments were essential in deciding whether to place children in the few slots allocated for drug or sex-offender treatment or to send them to one of the state's serious-offender programs.

"Generally order was being maintained by threats and intimidation," he concluded. "This facility is in crisis." [Warford's emphasis]

The problems were just beginning.

It would soon be clear that the much-needed Department of Youth Services reform had been undermined by politics, racial infighting and employees intent on protecting co-workers at any cost.

The Central Arkansas Observation and Assessment Center, the former North Little Rock jail, was an unlikely place to evaluate the mental and emotional condition of juvenile delinquents.

"That would never have been a spot that we would have selected," said R.B. Friedlander, then-director of the DYS. "It happened within a blink of an eye.''

She said she was called to a meeting at the jail with then-Gov. Tucker.

"It was clear to me that the decision had been made, and it would be our facility," said Friedlander. "Then, we just worked to make it the best we could make it. It was never totally appropriate. It was a jail."

The DYS master plan called for five O&A centers across the state.

Instead, DYS was saddled with one O&A center that required major renovations and wouldn't be ready for months.

North Little Rock officials transferred the jail to Pulaski County. The state agreed to rent the jail for $230,000 annually from the county. The bulk of the money was used to retire bonds for the new Pulaski County jail.

The center, designed to house 84 children, officially opened Aug. 7, 1995. Within two months, it averaged more than 100 juveniles daily and has held as many as 135 children. Staffing was never adequately increased. And high staff turnover added to the problems.

"It's like the Field of Dreams," explained Tom Dalton, former DHS director. "If you build it, the kids will come. We got jammed. We were the point of intake. But we didn't control the point of intake. The juvenile judges did."

On Nov. 14, 1995, DHS administrator Jerry Evans wrote a memo to Whitney pointing out problems with the building.

"The facility environment requires that juveniles and staff be constantly on top of each other due to the close, cramped quarters," he stated. "The facility does not really fit our needs for an O&A center, that seems clear to me."

Worse yet, the serious-offender wilderness programs were behind schedule. The Alexander Youth Services Center, the state's only lockdown facility, was bulging. There were few places to send the children after they were evaluated.

So, they lingered at the O&A.

Originally, the more violent offenders were to be kept upstairs. With overcrowding, that became a lost luxury. Murderers began rooming with shoplifters, and rapists roomed with credit-card abusers and children who hunted deer out of season.

There appeared to be no end to the children entering DYS custody. Commitments to DYS rose from 690 in calendar year 1991 to 1,005 in fiscal 1996 -- a 46 percent increase.

It originally was expected that the boys and the handful of girls in state custody would move on in 30-45 days. The average length of stay at the O&A center eventually rose to 83 days. One boy was kept nine months. Girls were sleeping in showers with pillows and blankets.

When Warford descended upon O&A in April 1997, the frustration level was at an all-time high.

The physical environment exacerbated the problem. The youths were occasionally taken to the rooftop to play basketball. Otherwise, they could go weeks without seeing daylight in the windowless facility. The air-conditioning and the heating systems broke frequently. The boys' jumpsuits, underwear and socks were cleaned at two-week intervals. Raw sewage spewed up through drains in the showers when toilets were flushed. Poor ventilation intensified the odor.

To add to the tension, sentences were not reduced for the time teens spent at the cramped facility. They were anxious to serve their time and get home. Verbal and physical attacks against other teens and the staff occurred daily. In turn, an aggravated staff lashed out. Some employees ordered rougher teen-agers to scare those who were discipline problems, which usually resulted in some kind of physical attack.

In addition, a thinly veiled underground sprang up among the boys. The more vulnerable children were forced to barter food to ward off beatings or attacks by sexual predators in the crowded cells. Toothbrushes and pencils were sharpened into lethal weapons to be used on staff members or opposing gang members. The mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed teen-agers kept the facility in an uproar, provoking an already-unstable atmosphere.

It was Pine Bluff again. Only worse.

CONTINUED, See Part II

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