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Sexual Abuse of Youths at Tennessee Juvenile Facility Widespread

by David M. Reutter

A February 2010 news report by The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper, revealed that juvenile offenders are regularly sexually abused at the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center.

The investigation followed a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) study that found Woodland Hills had one of the highest rates of abuse of any juvenile facility in the country, ranking among the top 13 facilities for sexual abuse. Nationwide, about 95% of staff sexual abuse at juvenile facilities involves female employees and male prisoners.

Woodland Hills is run by Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS). Despite the DOJ’s findings, DCS apparently remains in denial.

“Do we believe those most violent, vile offenses are occurring to our kids? No. And we actually have a lot of evidence showing that it’s not happening like that,” said Ted Martinez, executive director of residential operations for DCS. “Does this report raise questions as far as how we are looking at things and most importantly how our kids are perceiving some of these relationships? Absolutely.”

Under its sexual abuse investigation process, DCS is required to inform Metro police detectives, the district attorney’s office and a youth advocacy group whenever an allegation is filed. However, five investigations into the sexual abuse of Woodland Hills youths by kitchen staffer Luana Settle over her two-year employment at the Center revealed that that procedure is rarely followed.

The first four investigations did not find sexual abuse by Settle. Yet during a 2005 investigation she failed a voice stress analyzer, or lie detector test. That report was declared unsubstantiated.

Two separate investigations into Settle’s sexual abuse of Woodland Hills resident Larry Cook, Jr. were returned in 2006 as unsubstantiated. Eventually, Settle and Cook began living together.

Things began to unravel later in 2006 when a 17-year-old Woodland Hills resident checked into the infirmary with chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease. He told authorities he had had sex with Settle in a kitchen closet. She resigned during the investigation and later pleaded guilty to statutory rape and received a two-year prison sentence.

While Settle faced five investigations involving sexual abuse at Woodland Hills, youths interviewed during the investigation that led to her conviction said she had sex with more than a dozen juveniles. In her notes, Detective Heather Baltz reported that DCS’s investigative records were “cursory” and had “very little detail.” She further noted that Metro police were never notified of the prior reports concerning Settle.

The Tennessean’s investigation uncovered a 2008 letter filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “I (formerly) worked at Woodland Hills Youth Development Center from 1999-2003,” the letter from DCS employee Ricky Moreland stated. “During that time I personally witnessed several female staff that was alleged to have sexual or inappropriate contact with some of our male students at the time.”

Moreland’s letter mentioned a female employee who married a resident after he left Woodland Hills and another staff member who was impregnated by a juvenile at the Center. The Tennessean was unable to verify the pregnancy.

When Debra Smith’s son finally told her about the sexual abuse at Woodland Hills, she burst into tears. Her son, 15-year-old Charles Owens, is mentally challenged. He waited three weeks before finally informing his mother that a staff member had solicited him for oral sex.

“He was scared to death that nobody would believe him and he’d get in even more trouble,” Smith said. The situation “has made me know how dirty the state custody is for children. They say they’re rehabilitating; they’re not.”

Tennessee lawmakers are looking at the DOJ report and plan to hold committee hearings. “It’s our mission as grown-ups to protect children, to see to it they are fed and are healthy,” said state Rep. Sherry Jones. “This is a very serious accusation against DCS, and if you’re one of the worst 13 [juvenile facilities] on a list like that, that is awful,” she stated, referring to Woodland Hills’ sexual abuse ranking by the DOJ.

Source: The Tennessean

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