By Lawrence Messina
Testimony alleging sexual assaults and other problems at a West Virginia facility for juvenile offenders helped prompt a judge Wednesday to order its shutdown.
Following a hearing in Kanawha Circuit Court, Judge Omar Aboulhosn told state officials to relocate the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center or its residents by Sept. 30.
The Harrison County facility is on the same Salem campus as the now-former Industrial Home for Youth. Aboulhosn earlier condemned conditions at that high-security facility for juvenile offenders, leading the state to close it to youths as of July 1 and convert it to an adult prison.
But the Division of Juvenile Services has yet to identify a replacement facility or sufficient spare beds at other centers for the 21 sex offenders and seven juveniles with mental and behavioral health issues at Harriet B. Jones. The judge suggested several options during the morning hearing, said Lydia Milnes, a lawyer with Mountain State Justice.
“It’s clear that he wants them out by the 30th,” Milnes said following the hearing, adding that the judge may give state officials some leeway with that deadline.
A public interest law firm, Mountain State Justice filed the lawsuit that spurred Aboulhosn’s ruling against Industrial Home for Youth. Milnes said Wednesday’s witnesses include correctional officer Troy Stephenson, who testified that a 20-year-old sex offender allegedly sexually assaulted a 15-year-old from the behavioral health unit over the weekend.
Young offenders can remain at juvenile facilities past their 18th birthday, depending on their sentences. While the two groups of juveniles were kept apart and had separate staff, that changed July 1 amid the state’s conversion plan for the campus, Milnes said. As a result, Stephenson and just three other officers were on duty at the time of the alleged assault, she said.
Milnes said Stephenson testified that he also witnessed a senior correctional officer sexually assault a 19-year-old officer. Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Joe Thornton said his department takes all such cases seriously. It oversees both Juvenile Services and the Division of Corrections for adult offenders.
“Every incident that has been alleged is being investigated,” Thornton said after the hearing.
Citing Wednesday’s testimony, Milnes also alleged that top brass at Harriet B. Jones failed to heed the judge’s earlier ruling that targeted the Industrial Home for Youth — even after the state announced the conversion plan in March.
State officials said they are trying to address the latest issues raised in the case.
“There are a number of challenges we continue to address in our comprehensive restructuring of juvenile services,” Amy Shuler Goodwin, spokeswoman for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said after the hearing. “While hurdles still exist, we will diligently work to meet the deadline set by the court, while remaining focused on providing the best treatment programs and facilities for our youth.”
Staffing issues play a key role in the lawsuit, with Milnes and firm leader Dan Hedges arguing that juveniles are vulnerable to abuse because of insufficient staff. Residents have been confined to their rooms for longer periods than allowed, for instance, and are not always allowed their weekly, 15-minute phone calls, the lawsuit alleges.
While Aboulhosn stopped short of ordering the staffing changes sought by Mountain State Justice, Milnes noted that the judge called agency acting Director Stephanie Bond as a witness and told her that “the buck stops” with her.
“I think he made it clear that he sees that as the responsibility of DJS,” Milnes said, regarding the staffing issues. She also said, “The judge went beyond what we were seeking (with the Sept. 30th deadline), but we do think that is, ultimately, a necessary step.”