By Sharon Coolidge
Enquirer staff reporter
Two independent investigations are ongoing into allegations of sexual assault, beatings and improper medical care at the state's only juvenile prison for girls.
The Children's Law Center, based in Covington, is investigating the allegations and is now threatening to sue the Ohio Department of Youth Services, saying the state is dragging its feet to fix what it says are systematic problems at the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility, just north of Columbus.
"The girls' stories are heartbreaking," said Kim Brooks, director of the Law Center, a regional agency that advocates for the rights of children. "Not only are their lives often tragic before they go to the facilities, it's compounded by abuses inside."
The Department of Youth Services is taking seriously the allegations, which span more than a year but were first raised last fall, said Kevin Miller, the department's chief of staff.
Just days after receiving a letter in January from Brooks that outlined her concerns, the department hired an independent expert in juvenile prisons to investigate.
Where it is: 15 miles northwest of Columbus in Delaware County.
Who is housed there: It is a reception center where children first go before being placed in a facility elsewhere until their sentence is complete. SJCF also houses female juvenile offenders.
When it was built: 1993/94.
Capacity: 192, although on average only 120 girls are there at one time.
What's inside the walls: On 43 fenced-in acres, there are four units or "cottages." Each has a large common room, surrounded by small rooms in which one or two girls are housed. The rooms are locked and have long skinny windows.
There is a charter school on campus, which all girls are required to attend. There are some jobs on the campus for girls who have their GED or who have graduated. There is also a 24-hour medical center where contracted general physicians, gynecologists and dentists work, and a food-service center.
"We don't want to be sued," Miller said. "The law center has brought forth issues. It's our job to see how valid the allegation is, how widespread it is and, if so, how can we correct it."
Among the allegations:
Sexual abuse: A 16-year-old Hamilton County girl said a guard sexually assaulted her in February 2003 in her room.
That guard was convicted of sexual battery in the case and is serving six months in prison. He was also convicted of attempted sexual battery in a case involving another girl at Scioto.
Excessive force: In separate complaints, two girls said their arms were broken as guards tried to physically restrain them. In another case, a girl reported that a male staff member smacked her in the face several times, which resulted in damage to her eardrum that she said doctors told her could permanently affect her hearing.
Inadequate medical care: A girl said it took officials at Scioto six months to take her to a doctor after she complained of pain in her foot. After an exam, tests showed the girl's foot was broken. Officials did not immediately give her a brace for the injury and, when they did, it did not fit correctly. In another case, a girl who was on suicide watch cut her forearm eight times because the guard who was supposed to be watching her was asleep.
Fred Cohen, a national juvenile-justice expert hired by the state, said he was surprised during his first visit to Scioto in February. Cohen helped write national guidelines for the treatment of children sent to juvenile prisons
"We're finding things that show there is a militaristic bent to the place," he said.
Not the first time
Investigations are not new to the state's juvenile prisons, which at any time house about 1,800 children - about 120 of whom are girls who are convicted of committing crimes ranging from theft to murder. They are between the ages of 12 and 21.
Wednesday, 126 girls were jailed at Scioto, including six from Butler County, three from Hamilton County and two girls each from Clermont and Warren counties.
Problems stretch back more than a decade. In the early 1990s, then Lt. Gov. Mike DeWine ordered a statewide probe of the department that focused on allegations of abuse, drug smuggling and employee crimes. He also appointed task forces to study overcrowding, staffing and education to make recommendations for improvement throughout the state's juvenile prisons.
Changes were made, including repairs to state buildings.
In 1997, federal investigators were sent into Scioto, then located across the street from the current facility, after a girl reported she had been denied medical care. As a result of that four-year investigation, the department hired more nurses and kept the medical center open 24 hours, Miller said.
Last year, lawyers with the Ohio Public Defender's Office went into Scioto to help girls with their criminal cases. During the course of that work, the girls complained about conditions, many involving abuses by male guards, according to Assistant Ohio Public Defender Jill Beehler, who heads the office's juvenile division.
Beehler outlined the girls' allegations in an October 2003 letter she wrote to the Department of Youth Services. She asked the department to provide her with more information.
Beehler turned to Brooks after she said the department wasn't responding to the girls' complaints. She also said she was displeased with what she called inadequate follow-up to her concerns.
Within days, the Children's Law Center started an investigation, which included interviews with about a dozen girls jailed at Scioto.
"In fact, the situation was more dire than what we expected," Brooks said.
She detailed her findings in a three-page letter sent in January to Geno Natalucci-Persichetti, who has overseen the Department of Youth Services since 1988.
"They raise critical concerns about the safety and health of girls at the facility and demonstrate the need for more extensive investigation," she wrote in the letter.
In addition to allegations of assaults, she detailed other concerns: guards using abusive language, a failure to protect girls from harm, and improper use of physical restraints. She charged that Scioto has an ineffective process for girls to file complaints. She raised questions about staff training and whether girls were getting proper exercise, health care and education.
Days after receiving the letter, the department hired Cohen to investigate the claims and provide recommendations to fix problems.
A month later, Cohen made his first visit to Scioto.
He was surprised by what he didn't hear, he said.
Girls weren't allowed to talk during meals, and they were forced to walk in lines with their hands behind their backs. They had too much idle time.
He watched as the staff yelled at each other and at the girls. He said guards were using a physical restraint never intended to be used on children, which can lead to broken bones.
He was also appalled that the only mental-health care available was when girls were in crisis.
Overall, Cohen said, the conditions were not the worst he's seen.
"But they're not the best," he said.
Even before delving into allegations of physical and sexual abuse, Cohen recommended immediate changes.
And many changes happened.
Girls can now talk among themselves during meals and no longer have to keep their hands behind their backs. The use of the problematic physical restraint has been banned.
And this month, a psychologist spent a week at Scioto teaching staff how to treat girls properly. A guard who refused to attend was fired. And that guard wasn't the first to lose his job.
Natalucci-Persichetti hired a new superintendent, Leroy Payton, in March, after the former superintendent retired. Payton fired almost a dozen people this past spring, including administrators, mid-level managers and guards who failed to understand Cohen's push for rehabilitation instead of punishment.
Payton also hired a deputy superintendent to directly oversee the girls and develop programs inside Scioto aimed at the underlying reason many girls commit crimes.
Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Thomas Lipps said he is paying attention to the investigations because he sends girls to the prison. He heard about the problems at Scioto earlier this year and more recent reports of problems at another center but has confidence that Natalucci-Persichetti will fix what is wrong.
"I know there are problems, that the budget has been reduced," Lipps said. "Still, we need to have quality of care no matter what."
The department of youth services' operating budget was cut by $2 million to $211 million in 2000. It remains the same today.
Last year, Hamilton County juvenile judges sent 188 children to the Department of Youth Services, according to agency records. Ten of those children were girls who went to Scioto.
"When a judge sends a child to DYS, a judge expects that child to be safe and secure," Lipps said.
For the moment, Lipps said, he's satisfied: "I don't have much choice. When you send a child to DYS, you're out of local options. It's the only secure place available."
More work ahead
Cohen has returned for a handful of visits from his Arizona office and anticipates more in the coming months.
His attention now is focused on investigating allegations of physical and sexual abuse and ensuring the girls receive consistent mental-health care, with the goal to permanently change the punitive tone of Scioto.
"It's about rehabilitation - security is not the reason for a juvenile correctional facility," Cohen said.
He has hired an expert in excessive force to review abuse complaints. The hiring of a second full-time psychologist has been approved.
"We have a ways to go, but we're moving in a direction where it should be," Cohen said.
He expects to complete his investigation and present Natalucci-Persichetti with a final report in September.
A lawyer and a paralegal in the Ohio Public Defender's Office are continuing to help girls file appeals.
Earlier this summer, Natalucci-Persichetti, who has worked under four governors, went to Ohio Public Defender David Bodiker with a plan to add two lawyers to Bodiker's staff specifically to address complaints lodged by all children housed in any of the state's juvenile prisons.
Two lawyers aren't enough, Bodiker said. He and Natalucci-Persichetti are still working out those details.
"It's always been a sensitive matter to the Department of Youth Services and the institution," he said. "They don't want strangers looking under their bed and crawling around."
But Bodiker added: "Even if this is a miniscule step forward, it would be beneficial because it can't get any worse."
Brooks, of the Children's Law Center, said she understands sweeping changes take time, but she remains concerned that changes are still too slow.
"You can't act fast enough when children's well-being is endangered," she said. "Until there are major staffing changes and philosophical changes, I won't feel the girls are out of danger."
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