Friday, December 22, 2006

Veil drawn over sexually abusive staff members in the juvenile justice system

Bill would allow veil of secrecy for juvenile jails
Review of records led to past reforms
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Feb. 5, 2006, pg. A1.

FRANKFORT, Ky. Juvenile justice officials are pushing a bill that would give them broad power to keep records secret at the state's 12 centers that house youths found guilty of crimes.

It also would allow the state Juvenile Justice Department to develop regulations and policies in secret and would require state lawmakers who review them to hold closed hearings.

Juvenile Justice Commissioner Brigid Skaggs Brown said the need for better security is driving the proposal , a few paragraphs in the 47-page House Bill 351. But she said no specific incident prompted her call for the restriction of records.

"Right now, anyone can obtain any record pertaining to the safety and security of an institution, " Brown said.

The public review of records from juvenile facilities has led to reforms in the past.In 1995, Kentucky's juvenile justice system was placed under federal supervision for five years after the U.S. Justice Department determined that conditions violated youths' civil rights . The supervision ended in January 2001 after officials determined that Kentucky had made the required changes.

The federal investigation began after
The Courier-Journal obtained records from juvenile centers detailing allegations of abuse, lack of psychological treatment and youths' being locked in isolation cells for days.

In 2004, state officials moved to correct problems at the state's only center for girls, in Morehead, after The Courier-Journal reported allegations of sexual abuse of residents and other mistreatment, based in part on agency records.

Brandi Winebrenner, 21, of Henderson, Ky., a former resident at Morehead, said she strongly objects to efforts to restrict access to records.

"That's just crazy, " said Winebrenner, who spent 11 months at Morehead in 2002. "How can they say they want to protect the children when they want to hide what they are doing -"

State officials determined in 2003 that a staff member had sexually abused or engaged in other inappropriate conduct with 13 girls allegations that dated back to early 2002. Winebrenner said she was not subject to sexual abuse but was subject to crude sexual remarks and physical abuse.

Winebrenner said staff members discouraged her and other girls from reporting problems.

Bill sponsors unaware
The two sponsors of HB 351 Reps. Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, and Rob Wilkey, D-Scottsville also questioned the secrecy measure in the bill, which they said they agreed to sponsor for the Justice Cabinet as a "housekeeping bill" to clean up various statutes and update language.

"That would be a concern for me, " Hoover said. "I want to look at it."

Wilkey said he thinks the secrecy provisions need more scrutiny.

"Issues like that, we need to review carefully, " he said.

Neither Wilkey nor Hoover was familiar with the details of the secrecy provision . They said they sponsored the bill as a courtesy to the Justice Cabinet, which drafted it.

Hoover said he will seek an explanation about the proposal from the cabinet . Wilkey said some provisions including that one could be changed in committee.

The bill has been sent to the House Judiciary Committee, of which Wilkey is a co-chairman and Hoover is a member. It has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Advocates for juveniles say the measures could prevent the public from obtaining information about abuse and neglect of youths issues that have plagued Kentucky's juvenile justice system for decades.

"It is more protective of the agency the Department of Juvenile Justice than it is of the juvenile, " said David Richart , a longtime youth advocate who has served on several state commissions overseeing juvenile-justice reforms.

"This creates an environment of secrecy and lack of openness. "

'I try to prevent problems'
Brown said she's not aware of any security breaches based on access to records in recent years, but she believes the measures are necessary to protect information about staffing patterns, security checks and storage of keys.

Brown became commissioner in 2004 after working 20 years for the Louisville Police Department and retiring as a colonel.

"Coming from my background, I try to prevent problems, " Brown said. "I don't wait till they happen and say, ' We should have foreseen this.' "

Brown said similar provisions already apply to adult prisons.But advocates say juvenile centers should not be governed by the same laws as adult prisons because most are not locked, and by law, they focus on treatment and rehabilitation, not punishment.

"These are not, by and large, maximum-security institutions like prisons, " said Richart, director of the National Institute of Children, Youth and Families in Louisville. "It's overkill. "

Reduction of challenges
Rebecca DiLoreto, head of a unit of state public defenders who represent youths at juvenile facilities, said the provision to allow secret regulations and policies is troubling because it would keep advocates from challenging them effectively.

Her department recently won a court ruling striking down policies Juvenile Justice officials were using to classify and house youths.

Public defenders for the youths argued that the department wasn't following its own regulations and as a result, was placing youths in residential facilities who qualified for supervision at home or foster care.

The Juvenile Justice Department has since issued new regulations on placement that public defenders are challenging as too harsh. DiLoreto said that under the proposed law, public defenders might not have access to such regulations or even know they exist.

DiLoreto said the changes in HB 351 put too much power in the hands of juvenile-justice officials.

"It lets them decide what to release and what not to release, " DiLoreto said. "The advocates for youths think it's a very bad idea. "


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