Tuesday, February 9, 2010
TN lawmakers consider new oversight of sex abuse inquiries at youth facilities
DCS officials questioned about how they investigate claims By Nate Rau • THE TENNESSEAN • February 9, 2010 State lawmakers Monday discussed ways to improve oversight of sexual abuse claims at state juvenile detention facilities in the wake of a damning federal report that named a Nashville center as having one of the worst rates of abuse in the country. Members of the joint Select Committee on Children and Youth asked officials from the Department of Children's Services how it investigates workers when claims of sex abuse are made by youths incarcerated at a state-run juvenile detention facility. The committee met in response to a report issued in January by the U.S. Department of Justice, which said Nashville juvenile detention facility Woodland Hills Youth Development Center had one of the highest rates of sexual victimization in the country. The report said a majority of the cases nationally and at Woodland Hills involved female staffers' abusing male youths. An investigation by The Tennessean on Sunday identified similar claims. In 2007, for example, kitchen staffer Luana Settle was convicted of statutory rape after she had given a 17-year-old youth at the center chlamydia, and went on to live with another boy she'd had a sexual encounter with at the facility. None of the five special DCS investigations into Settle found that she had committed sexual abuse. DCS said it investigates claims of sex abuse along with Metro Police and the district attorney. "The committee believes the department investigating itself is not a good policy," said Nashville Democrat Rep. Sherry Jones, who chairs the committee. Jones said it was possible the committee would introduce legislation to remove the special investigation unit from under the DCS umbrella. Jones also said the committee would consider a measure requiring that police investigate claims of sex abuse. When Settle was investigated in 2007, a Metro detective said police were not notified of any past claims of abuse. Outside help urged Sen. Diane Black, a Gallatin Republican, suggested the state use outside specialists to interview juveniles about sex abuse claims. Currently DCS uses its own internal investigators to consider such claims. Rep. Chad Faulkner said the state should use an outside party to collect claims of abuse. Currently, an officer within the juvenile center collects claims and forwards them to authorities. "Whatever we're doing is not working," said Faulkner, a Republican from Luttrell. Related Sex abuse allegations plague TN juvenile detention center Sen. Thelma Harper expressed concern that girls being held under DCS care at the New Visions Center would soon be moved to Woodland Hills under a budget cut proposal from Gov. Phil Bredesen's administration. "I hate to see us splashed in Tennessee with sexual problems," said Harper, a Nashville Democrat. "I'm hoping in some way we could be removed from the list. Not only because those are children, but the other is because those are females. That's just not something that's traditional for women." DCS Deputy Commissioner Steve Hornsby said the department was taking the federal report seriously, but added that he didn't know why Woodland Hills found its way onto a list of the 13 worst centers in the country for claims of abuse. Hornsby called the report's findings that 95 percent of abuse nationwide came at the hands of female staff an "interesting phenomenon." Pointing to the popular film The Shawshank Redemption, which contains scenes depicting violent acts of prison rape, Hornsby said he didn't believe such acts were happening at Woodland Hills. The federal report questioned more than 9,000 youths at juvenile centers nationwide. The youths who participated in the survey were promised anonymity; their abuse claims could not be investigated. When Settle was investigated in 2007, a Metro detective said police were not notified of any past claims of abuse.
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