Abused kids in state custody to get help under agreement

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail file photo
Beth Cook (left), director of the child advocacy center in Mingo County, talks with police officers, social workers and others at a meeting in October 2015. This week, an agreement was reached that ensures every child in the state’s juvenile justice system who alleges sexual abuse will get help at one of the state’s child advocacy centers.

Children in West Virginia’s juvenile justice system who say they’ve been sexually abused or assaulted will now get help from the state’s child advocacy centers, where employees specialize in working with kids.

At child advocacy centers, which serve most counties in West Virginia, children who disclose abuse are interviewed and recorded, so they don’t have to repeatedly recount the trauma. The centers also provide counseling and refer children and their families to other community services.

Emily Chittenden-Laird, executive director of the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network, and Tim Harper, director of investigations for the state Division of Juvenile Services, announced this week that the 10 juvenile facilities in West Virginia have signed agreements with their local child advocacy centers last month. Children may talk about previous abuse, or abuse that occurred while in state custody.

“It’s been a great partnership,” Harper said. “They’ve been so excited and so have we.”

Chittenden-Laird noted that research suggests children who are targeted are more likely to end up in the state’s juvenile justice system custody, where facilities have not been historically equipped to help them heal from the trauma.

In “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline,” a report released in September 2015 by the Human Rights Project for Girls, Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Ms. Foundation for Women, researchers noted that girls in the juvenile justice system are more likely to have been the victims of child sexual abuse.

The report cites several studies, including a 2006 study of girls in Oregon’s juvenile justice system, which found 93 percent had experienced physical or sexual abuse; a 2009 study that found 81 percent of delinquent girls in South Carolina reported experiencing sexual violence; and a 1998 study of girls in the juvenile justice system in California that found 81 percent of girls had experienced physical or sexual abuse.

“Once inside, girls encounter a system that is often ill-equipped to identify and treat the violence and trauma that lie at the root of victimized girls’ arrests,” the reports states. “More harmful still is the significant risk that the punitive environment will re-trigger girls’ trauma and even subject them to new incidents of sexual victimization, which can exponentially compound the previous harms inflicted by the original abuse.”

And according to a 2012 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of youth in custody, about 9.5 percent of adjudicated youth in juvenile justice facilities report experiencing sexual victimization, either by another youth or a staff member. Gay, lesbian, or bisexual youth were more at risk of victimization by peers, and black youth were more at risk of victimization by staff. Of 109 West Virginia youth who responded, 13.5 percent reported victimization.

Chittenden-Laird said some behaviors that may be perceived as delinquency or acting out may be a child’s coping mechanism for dealing with trauma.

“Trauma’s impact can often show up as delinquent behaviors with kids. You may have a child who is fighting. Maybe they needed to fight in their own home.”

Running away is frequently viewed as a delinquent behavior as well.

“The question may need to be answered, ‘What are they running away from?’” she said.

Both parties said that the agreement is not solely about making sure children who disclose abuse are interviewed at the centers, but also training Juvenile Services staff on responding appropriately, allowing the youth to have access to a range of child advocacy center services and formalizing a partnership.

Harper noted that the Juvenile Services facilities do have mental health workers.

“They’re qualified to do this, but we like to reach out to child advocacy centers who do this every day,” he said.

Both parties have been learning from each other.

During a training last month, Chittenden-Laird said child advocates learned from Juvenile Services staff members how a “culture of toughness” at the facilities could make children less likely to report abuse. Meanwhile, child advocates encouraged staff members to let investigators determine the legitimacy of any allegations.

“Residents in DJS facilities have been branded sometimes for understandable reasons as untruthful,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they’re lying about what they’ve experienced.

The initiative has been in the works for about a year. Harper said that some children in DJS custody had been served by child advocacy centers during that time.

But Chittenden-Laird described some incidents in which children arrived at centers in shackles or orange jumpsuits.

Juvenile Services has since agreed to provide the children plain clothes, unless safety is an issue, so “the child isn’t by the very nature of what they’re wearing assumed to be a person out of compliance with the law,” according to Chittenden-Laird.

Harper said the agreement brings the juvenile justice facilities in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Audits available on the DJS website confirm their compliance.

According to a copy of an agreement provided by Harper, the agreements will remain in effect for two years before they must be renewed.

Reach Erin Beck at erin.beck@wvgazettemail.com, Facebook.com/erinbeckwv, 304-348-5163 or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

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