State lawmakers asked Department of Children’s Services officials Monday to explain why a juvenile detention facility was listed in a federal government report as having one of the highest rates of sexual abuse in the nation.
Last month the U.S. Department of Justice released a study which found that 26 percent of the juveniles housed at the male-only Woodland Hills facility in Nashville claimed to have been sexually abused while at the facility.
Members of the joint Select Committee on Children and Youth questioned DCS officials for well over an hour during a hearing at the Capitol.
“How can this happen?” asked Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, who chairs the committee. “Isn’t there supposed to be another staff member there all the time? Are there security cameras in place? Are there preventative things in place? I just don’t understand how this happened.”
Woodland Hills Superintendent Albert Dawson maintained that the juvenile inmates are supervised at all times. Surveillance cameras have been installed in the last six months, he added.
“(The cameras are) not in the students’ rooms and they’re not in the shower areas, but they are in all of the common areas,” he said.
DCS Deputy Commissioner Steve Hornsby downplayed the report’s findings, saying it does not necessarily mean there are major problems at the facility.
“(The report) is based on allegations — it’s not based on substantiated cases,” he said. “It’s based on allegations as part of an anonymous survey that was conducted.”
“We want to find out what it is (that led to the results of the survey), and we want to get to the bottom of it,” he added. “We have nothing to hide.”
In the past year, there were about 130 investigations for physical abuse, sexual abuse or lack of supervision, according to DCS officials. Of those, eight were “substantiated.”
Not all the legislators on the committee indicated they were satisfied by those numbers or the department’s explanations.
“It just seems curious that there were 130 investigations and there were only eight that appeared to have sufficient evidence,” said state Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville. “That really seems far-fetched, unless they had some kind of game going on.”
In fact, even that number may be “over-reported,” Dawson said.
“If a child gives any hint that there’s anything wrong going on with him, then it’s reported to Child Protective Services, (and) it’s reported to Internal Affairs, to go through the procedure,” he said.
Hornsby promised DCS was taking the report “very seriously,” and that department officials are “looking at what we can do” to address the allegations and the well-being of inmates.
“I take it personally, and you’ve got my assurance we won’t be on there the next time if we can do anything about it. And we are doing things about it,” he said.
Lawmakers on the panel suggested they may move to intervene or further investigate, though.
“Whatever we’re doing is not working,” said Rep. Chad Faulkner, R-Luttrell. “This is something we need to address now and fix. This is something we don’t need to really sit on. This is pretty embarrassing for me, and I know all these other members (of the committee), and (DCS) as well. We need to do whatever it takes to fix it.”
The federal study was mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act that Congress passed in 2003. It requires federal corrections authorities to conduct a yearly “comprehensive statistical review and analysis of the incidents and effects of prison rape.”
Information-gathering for the analysis was conducted between June 2008 and April 2009, and involved 166 state-owned or operated facilities and 29 locally or privately operated facilities.
The facilities examined house about 26,550 youth inmates nationwide. “Overall, 91% of youth in these facilities were male; 9% were female,” the report stated.
“Among the 13 high-rate facilities, most reports of sexual victimization involved non-consensual sexual acts with another youth and serious sexual acts with facility staff excluding touching,” according to the report.