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Indiana Judge Refuses to Send Juveniles to Unsafe Facility

On December 17, 2007, Judge Peter Nemeth of St. Joseph County, Indiana informed Governor Mitch Daniels that he would no longer send female juvenile offenders to the Indianapolis Juvenile Correctional Facility (formerly known as the Indiana Girls School).
Nemeth found that the facility was understaffed and determined it was “neither safe nor productive” to send girls to the Department of Corrections (DOC) facility, which also housed male juveniles.

Judge Nemeth’s decision followed a court-ordered audit of the facility that was conducted on October 23, 2007. The audit found numerous deficiencies and rated the facility as “not satisfactory” or “needs improvement” in 13 of 27 reviewed areas. The facility, which until recently housed 258 youthful offenders, had a staff-to-juvenile ratio of one guard to every 20 to 40 children – far exceeding the acceptable standard of 1 to 10.

“It is disheartening to hear from juveniles that the staff is not consistently locking the doors to the bedrooms at night and not completing their rounds,” auditors wrote. “Overt sexual behavior continues more often during the day in the units and at the school … and apparently has become part of the culture at the facility.”

Nemeth said his staff interviewed dozens of girls and learned that many were having sex with each other – which they called “networking” – because staff levels were too low for adequate supervision. They also told the auditors that some facility employees knew this was happening and didn’t care. Other girls identified male staff members who made sexual advances by touching and speaking to them inappropriately.

Pat Arthur, senior attorney specializing in juvenile justice issues at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, California, said the complaints, if accurate, should raise a number of red flags. She noted that staffing ratios should be about one supervisor for every 12 juveniles.

DOC Chief of Staff Randall Koester questioned the accuracy of the girls’ complaints, and asserted the facility had a staffing ratio of 1 to 6.5, which included teachers and counselors. However, Arthur said counselors and teachers are not typically counted in such ratios.

The court-ordered audit further found that 118 of the facility’s 258 youths were taking psychotropic medication. Arthur found this number “suspiciously high”; also, the facility psychiatrist had failed to adequately explain why many juveniles had been placed on the drugs, to justify the continued use of medication, or to provide a monthly follow-up.

“I would really want to examine those practices and the quality of care and monitoring the girls are getting,” said Arthur. “Those drugs can be used as a substitute for engaging the child in activities and opportunities to change themselves.”

Additionally, the audit faulted the lack of vocational programs at the facility and found the classroom setting could “only be described as nonproductive at best.” Koester defended the lack of a certified vocational training course, claiming the needs of the population called for a focus on remedial education and special education. Arthur disagreed, explaining that the lack of vocational training was a huge deficiency because such skills are important in helping juveniles find a different path in life; e.g., other than delinquency.

The October audit was the review team’s third visit to the facility since May of 2007, when similar concerns were noted, according to team leader Bill Bruinsma, executive director of the Thomas N. Frederick Juvenile Justice Center in South Bend, Indiana, which oversees St. Joseph County’s juvenile programs. “I was hopeful in May,” Bruinsma said. “When we pointed some of the problems out, there were promises made that things would improve. But when we went back in October, I was disappointed because so many of those promises hadn’t been kept.”

Judge Nemeth decided to write the Governor – and several state lawmakers – after receiving an unsatisfactory response from DOC Commissioner J. David Donahue in December 2007. “He basically said he thought they were doing a good job and said you can’t believe everything the girls say,” recalled Nemeth. “After that, I felt the only way anything would happen would be to bring the governor into the picture.” Nemeth noted that the facility “seems like chaos to me, [with] very little discipline. The girls say they are running the place.”

Apparently, notifying the governor was what it took to force improvements on an unwilling corrections system. In March 2008 the state began removing male juveniles from the facility, which would allow staff members to more closely supervise the units housing female offenders. The DOC said a “staffing plan for the facility is being developed to ensure the appropriate deployment of staff.” Bruinsma praised the change as “a step in the right direction.” Regardless, Judge Nemeth continued to refuse to send girls to the Indianapolis Juvenile Correctional Facility until he was sure that conditions had improved; instead, female juveniles were sent to a private facility at about twice the cost to the state.

Nemeth has not been alone in his concerns. In February 2006, state and federal officials agreed on a plan calling for the Indiana DOC to address rampant violence and sexual activity at state juvenile facilities. The plan required the state to increase training and implement new education, mental health and administrative review programs. As part of the agreement, the U.S. Department of Justice is monitoring changes within DOC juvenile facilities for up to three years.

Sources: The Indianapolis Star, South Bend Tribune,, Associated Press

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