Gov. John Bel Edwards has announced he will launch a second state investigation – one that includes the Department of Children and Family Services and the Office of Juvenile Justice – into Ware Youth Center, a large juvenile detention facility in Coushatta.
Ware’s staff allegedly engaged in sexual abuse, choking and other physical violence against incarcerated youth in its care over a period of 25 years, according to a report from The New York Times.
“I was disturbed, as I guess was everybody who read the article,” the governor said. “We have to make sure that the reporting was correct, and then try to find out from Ware’s perspective, what their version of the story is – what if any actions they’ve already taken.”
Earlier this week, Edwards asked the state Office of the Inspector General to launch its own investigation into Ware, but an inspector general probe is typically slow-moving. It could take several months or even years to complete.
Edwards suggested Thursday the second investigation involving his administration would likely take less time and aim to address any immediate concerns.
“I’ve asked other individuals in the administration, particularly in OJJ and DCFS, to go to Ware and to do some investigative work in the very near future and to come back to report to me their findings, so we can make a decision as to whether additional action needs to be taken in advance of the [report from the] Office of Inspector General,” he said.
“What is really happening there today? Is it a safe environment that is conducive to rehabilitation and the kind of progress we want to see in these kids?” Edwards said.
Staci Scott, Ware’s executive director, said she was unable to comment on the allegations made through the article.
“While Ware Youth Center would love an opportunity to discuss the content of this news article, it cannot and will not discuss the records of current or past juveniles who have been remanded to its detention, intensive residential or group home programs,” Scott said in a written statement. “Releasing information on minors is prohibited by Louisiana state statutes.”
The question of whether children are safe at the facility could be urgent.
At least one person accused of sexual and physical abuse by multiple women incarcerated at Ware as minors continues to work at the center, according to The New York Times report.
The employee, a longtime manager at the facility, allegedly choked an incarcerated minor until she was unconscious and stuck his fingers in another incarcerated young person’s vagina. Two women also said he groped them while they stayed at Ware and four said he was physically abusive, according to The New York Times article.
The allegations are so serious that one of the state’s leading child welfare advocates said it is not enough to just investigate Ware’s operations. The state needs to move children and young adults at Ware to another facility, he said
“Other adults need to make sure those children are safe,” said Aaron Clark-Rizzio with the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. “We need to act and we need to act fast to get those children out of harm’s way.”
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Ware is like no other juvenile detention center in the state. It houses children and teenagers who are pre-trial detainees from six rural northwest Louisiana parishes as well as people, primarily girls and young women, from around Louisiana in state custody under the Office of Juvenile Justice.
The facility’s population includes 15 to 20 incarcerated girls and young women who have been placed in state secure care, the juvenile alternative to prison. The Office of Juvenile Justice also places additional girls there to take part in a “residential group home program” operated at Ware. Both girls and boys in state custody who need substance abuse treatment also go to Ware, according to Nicolette Gordon, OJJ spokeswoman.
The Office of Juvenile Justice has not disclosed the total number of incarcerated youth in state custody at the detention center, but no other facility holds girls and young women in Louisiana’s secure care program.
Local law enforcement from those six rural parishes also oversee Ware, while boys in the state’s secure care program go to facilities the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice runs directly.
It could be complicated to remove pre-trial juvenile detainees from the facility, but Clark-Rizzio said, at the very least, the governor and other state officials should transfer the young people in state custody out of Ware until their safety can be ensured.
“The girls in the Office of Juvenile Justice custody should be moved immediately,” he said.
State officials have distanced themselves from the operations at Ware in the wake of last weekend’s New York Times article. Edwards described Ware on Thursday as an “entity with which the state contracts, so it’s not run directly by the state of Louisiana.”
State officials are, however, responsible for oversight of Ware and some of its governance.
The detention center’s governing board, called the Ware Youth Center Authority, is a political subdivision of the state of Louisiana, and the assistant secretary over the Office of Juvenile Justice, appointed by Edwards, picks three of its 12 board members.
Judges, sheriffs, district attorneys and other local elected officials from the six parishes that use the detention center select the rest.
The governor and legislators are responsible for a significant amount of Ware’s funding. The Office of Juvenile Justice pays Ware to house the incarcerated youth in state custody. Legislators have also passed laws that direct traffic fees and legal fines to Ware to help cover its expenses.
Two state agencies overseen by Edwards, the Office of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Children and Family Services, are also responsible for enforcing state laws and regulations at Ware.
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Both departments have cited Ware for not complying with state requirements over the years, but they refrained from issuing fines to the facility or threatening its funding over those problems, according to The New York Times.
The Office of Juvenile Justice found Ware used untrained staff to conduct therapy for girls. The Department of Children and Family Services reported that Ware wasn’t performing timely mental health evaluations. The state also cited Ware for keeping incarcerated youth in holding cells for longer than state rules allowed, according to The New York Times.
State Rep. Joe Marino, Gretna, said he also has questions about Ware. He chairs the Louisiana House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice, which oversees policy related to the state juvenile justice system.
“It receives a substantial amount of state funding, and I have some questions about its board,” Marino said. “I was completely unfamiliar with the facility at first but not anymore.”
“I want to know what’s going on at that facility right now,” he said.
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