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HIS HANDS are what you notice first when he talks about it. Young, strong hands clenched together, the boy twisting them unconsciously until the skin is red and as raw as his emotions.

It is as if he might wring out the pain, the anger, the humiliation of what had been done to him.

The 16-year-old boy's voice drops. His mind has replayed the terror of that night. But he is embarrassed to say what happened. Out loud. Again.

His blue eyes find a point on the wall and lock on it. Then, the story begins.

It was 7:38 p.m., April 1, and half of the teen-agers were in their cells 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. All the teen-agers have been judged delinquent and are to be evaluated for placement in state programs.

The youth services worker on his unit, the boy says, was angry with him and his cellmate, both white, for calling her a "bitch" and a "whore" the day before. She tells him, he says, that she is going to teach him not to mess with a black woman.

Over his protests, he is placed in cell B-1 with four black teen-agers, one known for violent behavior and dislike of whites. Soon, they begin to taunt the new boy, laughing as they describe obscene sexual acts they will perform on him.

He sits on the floor in front of the bars, until he is suddenly dragged to the back of the cell. Out of sight of teen-agers in other cells. Out of range of security cameras.

But 18 other teen-agers and the youth services worker are just a few feet away. The boys in B-1 spit on him. They hit him. He asks to be removed.

"One of the boys had his sheet twisted up like a rope and wrapped it around my throat. He didn't jerk me to my feet but pulled me up, and the sheet held me up on my knees."

One of the youths sexually assaulted him, he says.

To protect his identity, he will be called Chris in this story. What he has alleged could have happened to any child who has gone through the Arkansas juvenile justice system.

A year-long investigation by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has uncovered a state juvenile system in which children have been routinely degraded; verbally, physically and sexually abused; hogtied; forced to sleep on floor mats near raw sewage; and threatened with punishment or death if they tell.

And staff members, at times, have covered up the abuse, lying to investigators and coercing teen-agers through fear or special favors to recant their stories.

This incident is one of several a Democrat-Gazette reporter presented to DHS Chief Counsel Jonann Coniglio in late April.

Gov. Mike Huckabee, alerted about the abuse allegations that have been verified, called a press conference.

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

Huckabee called for an immediate overhaul of the system.

But the stories told by Chris and other teen-agers reveal an inept bureaucracy in which abusive employees have little fear of being caught or prosecuted.

If Chris could have peered into his future and seen the terror that awaited him, he might have never taken that first wrong step.

He was with some other teen-agers in a Kroger store when he slipped two packages of cigarettes into his pocket.

That was in 1996. He was 14 years old. He was arrested and spent a weekend at the Juvenile Detention Center in Pulaski County. He was declared delinquent and placed on probation.

His parents, who had separated years earlier, had finally divorced in 1989. Chris chose to live with his mother in 1992. His older sister and younger brother moved back and forth between their parents' houses.

His father, who works in law enforcement, and his mother, who has an undergraduate degree in juvenile justice, were appalled by the theft.

During the next two years, Chris drifted from one troubling incident to another. His mother asked that the court place him in a group home so he would receive treatment she could not afford to give him. He lived there nearly four months, then moved back home.

While attending a day-school program at that group home, he carried a pocket knife to class.

"I didn't mean to do it. They were going to expel me, but since I turned it in, they suspended me for five days," he says.

His mother feared this was a warning sign but did not know what to do. "He was starting to do those things where he steps over that line."

For a while, however, Chris seemed to be making progress after he was hired at a bookstore. His grades improved for three months. He had his own money. And then, he began to rebel.

Chris quit his job. His mother suspected something wasn't right.

"My mom found out I was spending time with people I shouldn't -- weed smokers and drinkers. She was mad."

She began to wonder what her tolerance limit was. And then she found out.

"She had gone on a business trip, and I had done really good the whole time," Chris says.

But Chris, who was 16 and did not know how to drive, decided to take his mother's car to church. Within a block, he rammed into two parked cars, destroying her 1993 Ford Escort and damaging the other vehicles.

Enraged, his mother reported Chris to his probation officer. He was placed in the detention center for 21 days for taking the car without permission -- a violation of his probation.

"They were going to let him out, and I made him stay over Christmas,'' she says. "On Christmas Day he waxed the floor and had a turkey sandwich for dinner."

Chris also missed the birth of his first niece. "That was very painful," he says, sadness flickering across his face.

"I got out, and they told me I had a month to do good. And I screwed up again. Me and my friends had smoked some marijuana on my court date," he says. "The last thing I expected was a drug test that day.

"I brought some bleach with me, and I poured it in my urine test to cover the marijuana. Everyone wanted to know who was doing laundry. I finally told them what I did."

On Feb. 11, 1998, Pulaski County Chancery Court Judge Wiley A. Branton Jr. sent Chris to the Observation and Assessment Center.

"You're obviously not going to learn," Chris recalls the judge telling him. "I hate to have to put you over there. But maybe you need this."

His mother concurred with the judge. "I was angry. Something had to be done. We had come all this way, and he hadn't learned anything," she says.

She says she was told that O&A was a short-term facility. He would be there 30 days. After that, the staff would determine where Chris would be placed.

"I didn't even get to hug him before he left," his mother says. "I was so worried about him, I didn't sleep. I didn't know if I had done the right thing."

Fifty-seven days later, she would pick up her son. And try to pick up the shattered pieces of his life.


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