After years of scandal and allegations of mistreatment of juveniles, the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center (AJATC), a 100-bed juvenile lockup facility near Alexander, was handed over last summer to a new contractor promising a fresh start. Michael Cantrell, executive director of the southeastern region for Rite of Passage, the Nevada-based for-profit company that was awarded the $34 million contract in 2016, said at the time that the company was committed to “transform a harder facility into a softer facility.”
However, Amy Lafont, an attorney representing several families with children locked up at the facility, said that AJATC continues to take an overly punitive approach, which she described as “a culture of casual violence.”
Lafont recently acquired a video captured by the facility’s cameras of an incident last December in which a guard jumped over a table, grabbed a 15-year-old, and pushed him against the wall with his hand around his throat. The child, who is Lafont’s client, did not appear in the video to be acting in a way that could be construed as endangering himself or others. The guard, Darrell Woods, whose official job title was group living counselor, was fired. The Arkansas State Police Crimes Against Children Division (CADC) investigated the incident and determined in January that Woods’ actions constituted child maltreatment and that Woods’ name should be placed on the Arkansas Child Maltreatment Central Registry.
The juvenile and his family say he attempted to notify staff about what happened and had visible bruising on his neck, but no action was taken until two days later. Rite of Passage disputes both of these claims, arguing that it was an isolated incident of an individual guard failing to follow protocol and that Rite of Passage followed the proper procedure in notifying the State Police once it learned of the allegation.
Department of Human Services spokesperson Amy Webb declined to comment, saying the agency was prohibited by law from answering questions about any specific child maltreatment investigations. A true finding of abuse by CACD at a facility overseen by DHS’ Division of Youth Services must be reported to DYS, and presumably was in this case. As a matter of general policy, Webb said, in such a scenario, “DYS also conducts its own review of an incident and takes any follow-up action necessary.”
AJATC is one of seven juvenile lockup facilities, known as treatment centers, overseen by DYS. In total, 305 youths are housed at these facilities (there are also 14 county-level lockup facilities, where youths would first be taken upon arrest). They are called treatment centers because they are intended to be therapeutic and rehabilitative rather than punitive, and they are required to provide education that meets state standards and allows youths to continue on a path to graduation from high school.
Before Rite of Passage took control last year, AJATC had a long history of trouble. In 2003, the facility was placed under federal court supervision after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found various violations of constitutional rights, including unsafe conditions, inadequate education and forced participation in religious activities. In 2007, while still under court supervision, an internal state investigation found that the lockup’s staffers were improperly drugging children without their consent to control their behavior. That scandal led DYS to replace then-contractor Cornell Interventions with a new company, G4S (both are for-profit corporations), but more controversy came in 2014. The attorney general found that DYS was illegally taking DNA samples from hundreds of youths at AJATC. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that the number of violent incidents at the facility had nearly doubled after it was released from federal supervision. Multiple staffers were fired or resigned after accusations of assaulting youths. An investigation by the Disability Rights Center of Arkansas also found systemic problems at the facility, including accusations that staff members had used candy to bribe youths to fight each other.
Some juvenile justice advocates argued that AJATC should be shut down. Paul Kelly, a longtime senior policy analyst for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families who retired this month, said research strongly suggests that large institutional settings like AJATC are harmful rather than rehabilitative for most children. “All of the youth justice advocates across the country and all of the states around us are saying that these are not good places for kids to be,” he said. He said it was of particular concern when such institutions were run by a private for-profit company.
For years, Kelly said, Arkansas has systematically overinvested in institutions like AJATC and underinvested in community-based alternatives. Arkansas Advocates estimates that the state has fewer than 50 youths who need to be confined in a heavily secured lockup facility like AJATC. (Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families has contributed funding to the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network for reporting on juvenile justice issues.)
The state made another major investment in AJATC in 2016, when it awarded a three-year contract to Rite of Passage, which won the bid over G4S despite a higher price tag. During a legislative review of the contract, Rite of Passage, which runs more than 40 other programs for troubled youths in 16 states, including similar facilities for juvenile offenders, was asked about problems that have occurred in some of its facilities. A staffer in Colorado in 2014 and another in Texas in 2016 were charged with offenses related to sexual contact with youths in custody. Multiple investigations of a facility in Nevada found poor conditions and rights violations, and riots broke out in December 2015, leading to a fire and the escape of 10 juveniles. Rite of Passage officials said that these were isolated incidents and that occasional problems were inevitable when dealing with this population.
The incident at AJATC that led Rite of Passage to terminate Woods’ employment took place on Dec. 1, in Building 19 — a building used for initial assessment when youths first arrive as inmates and also as a space to remove inmates from the general programming if they do not behave. Sometimes, youths are confined in small individual cells. “It’s a last resort,” said Cantrell. “It’s a space where kids can get themselves together and the ultimate goal is getting them back into normal programming as quickly as possible.”
According to Rite of Passage, Jason — his name has been changed in this story to protect his anonymity — was sent to Building 19 on Dec. 1 because he had acted up in class and then again in the in-school-suspension classroom. The altercation with Woods took place in an open space in Building 19 after Jason had been briefly let out of his cell.
According to Jason’s account, he was waiting to get word from the shift supervisor about where he was supposed to go next, but Woods declined to contact the supervisor and ordered Jason to go to his cell. Jason said he wouldn’t go to his cell until he heard from the shift supervisor. Woods’ statement in Rite of Passage’s own internal investigation doesn’t mention the request to see the shift supervisor; it simply states that Jason continually refused to go back to his cell.
At some point during this dispute, Woods began to chase Jason around the room. According to Jason, he flicked a playing card and Woods threw a mesh bag at him. According to Woods’ account, it was Jason who threw the mesh bag, but on the video it appears that Woods threw it.
Eventually, Woods jumped over the table and grabbed Jason. With his hand around Jason’s throat, he slammed him against the wall, holding him in this position for several seconds.
“He was choking me,” Jason said in an interview with ANNN conducted at AJATC in March. “He said, ‘If I say, “You gonna go in your room,” you gonna go in your room.’ I was just trying to breathe. I was thinking in my head, I was like, ‘Dang, I hope he don’t kill me.’ If he would’ve kept choking me for about 10 more seconds, I know I would’ve passed out.”
In his written statement to Rite of Passage’s internal investigator, Woods said that when Jason refused to go back to his room, he “end[ed] up grabbing him against the wall and asking him several times to go back to his room” and then “escort[ed] student … back to his room.” According to Jason, after the incident, Woods came to his cell and asked him whether he wanted candy, cookies or the use of his phone in an attempt to keep Jason from telling anyone about what happened.
Jason said that he had severe bruising on his neck from the altercation. He said that he told a staff member about what happened, but no action was taken. He also said that he asked to file a grievance form but was never provided the necessary paperwork by Rite of Passage staff. According to Rite of Passage, Jason did not immediately tell any staff member and there was no visible bruising. All employees at a juvenile treatment facility are mandated reporters of child maltreatment, required by law to immediately report suspected abuse to the state’s Child Abuse Hotline.
Webb, the DHS spokesperson, said that in a hypothetical scenario in which a staffer failed to report abuse, that staffer would be immediately terminated by DYS. She added, “If there is a situation in which a youth claims a staffer failed to report allegations that a youth disclosed, DYS would need to be notified by the youth, the youth’s family, or the youth’s attorney so that we can try to determine whether failure to report abuse occurred.”
Two days after the incident, on Dec. 3, Jason’s mother came for visitation. According to her, she could still clearly see the bruising on his neck. She became upset, and a Rite of Passage grievance officer spoke with Jason and his mother and took the complaint alleging that Woods had choked Jason. At this point, Rite of Passage called the Child Abuse Hotline, which triggered the CACD investigation. Rite of Passage also began its own internal investigation into the incident, during which it took the statement from Woods. No written statement was taken from Jason, although the internal investigator did speak to him.
Rite of Passage disputes certain aspects of Jason’s account. “The kid didn’t say anything until he talked to his mother on Dec. 3,” Cantrell said. He said it was “flat-out incorrect” that Jason had attempted to inform a staffer before then.
Meanwhile, he noted that once Rite of Passage took the grievance complaint and began its own incident report, a shift supervisor inspected Jason on the afternoon of Dec. 3 and concluded that he “does not have any marks on him.”
“There were no marks on this kid. There were no bruises. There was none of that,” Cantrell said.
Jason’s mother, however, said that the bruises were still visible when she visited on Dec. 3 and that both she and another family member visiting saw the markings on his neck. “They were clearly there,” she said. “I saw them with my own two eyes.”
The Rite of Passage incident report created after the facility’s internal investigation includes paperwork stating that there were no markings, but it is signed by the shift supervisor, not a medical professional. Cantrell said staff members sometimes do an initial “mark sheet,” but protocol would call for a nurse on site to also examine the child after an accusation of maltreatment. He said that a nurse examined Jason on Sunday, Dec. 4, and completed a mark sheet stating there were no visible marks. The incident report did not include any record of this, but Rite of Passage later provided the nurse’s mark sheet as part of a response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
“If they’re trying to challenge whether or not it was serious because of whether or not he had neck bruises two days later from being choked by an adult, that’s a diversionary argument,” said Lafont, the attorney who, along with attorney Lawrence Walker, represents Jason’s family. “The video speaks for the assault that was committed on this kid. We shouldn’t be minimizing that.”
The video review in the Rite of Passage incident report described the moment that Jason characterized as Woods choking him as follows: “GLC Woods slides over a table and approaches [Jason]. GLC Woods has him against the wall briefly then escorts him into his room.”
Lafont said the Rite of Passage incident report was biased and inaccurate. “It’s a fraudulent document,” she said. “It doesn’t depict what’s on the video and it creates a paper record that is a misrepresentation of what happened. It’s evidence of malfeasance.”
Lafont said it was disturbing that the video review referred to a physical interaction that happened earlier in the afternoon in terms of “horse playing”: “Woods has [Jason] up against a wall. Woods and [Jason] are horse playing.”
This earlier physical interaction was also “not appropriate — he was not following protocol,” Cantrell said.
Cantrell’s interpretation of the severity of the event differs from Lafont’s. “If you look at the video, they were joking, they were running around, being silly with each other,” Cantrell said. “But then when the kid was asked to go to the room, the kid refused to go to the room.” Nevertheless, Cantrell said, the response at that point from Woods clearly violated their policies and protocols. On Dec. 5, Rite of Passage fired Woods, who had worked at AJATC since 2014, previously in a similar position with G4S.
Woods used “obviously improper techniques,” Cantrell said. “He wasn’t trained to grab a kid like that, around the head, so to speak.
“We have a physical intervention policy. There’s a proper way to intervene with kids in a physical manner if they’re either a danger to themselves or a danger to others. There’s a protocol, there’s techniques to be used. If you don’t use those techniques properly, that is a violation of the policy, and he violated that policy.”
Cantrell said that in addition to the technique itself being improper, “at that point, the kid running around the room did not appear to be a danger to himself or others.”
“We made the decision quickly,” Cantrell said. “Mr. Woods violated policy and Mr. Woods doesn’t work there anymore.”
Asked what had gone wrong that led to the problem, Cantrell responded: “I think there’s probably a couple of variables. The youth’s behavior — refusal to follow directions — obviously, he’s not innocent in this situation as far as his behaviors are concerned. But basically the staff member did not follow the protocol as he was trained. I think that the kid’s behaviors were not acceptable, but that’s not a reason for the staff member not to follow the protocol. To be quite honest, I think that the young man saw Mom, you know, and pumped it up. The reality is that this kid, he made a big deal out of it when he got to his mom on Dec. 3. But once we were made aware that he believed he was abused, we followed our protocol and called the State Police, and did the things that our protocol says that we should do.”
Jason’s mother said that no child should be treated in the manner that she saw on the video and that she worries for her son’s safety in AJATC. “He’s a child,” she said. “I know he’s not going to get the treatment that he gets at home, but for [Woods] to throw the mesh bag at him, jump over the table, and actually grab him by the neck and slam him against the wall? It’s ridiculous. You could have actually hurt him really bad. I go to bed every night praying that God just keeps him safe.”
Lafont said that two other clients confined at the facility have alleged maltreatment that she reported to the hotline; CACD has opened investigations, which are ongoing. She said she is exploring the possibility of a lawsuit on behalf of youths who she says have faced maltreatment at the facility.
Cantrell said that Rite of Passage’s goal is to “take as great care of these kids as we possibly can, and our policies, procedures and protocols are designed to make sure that happens. In the real world, does it always work perfectly? It does not. But we’re going to take any kind of maltreatment or abuse of any kind against kids extremely seriously.”
Cantrell said he was pleased with Rite of Passage’s progress in transforming AJATC into a “softer facility.” He pointed to investments in remodeling and improving the living units; sports programs, including bringing in basketball and soccer teams in from the community; more than 50 volunteers from the community coming into work with kids; the development of work and job-training programs; and replacing the previous prison-style jumpsuits with school uniforms.
“It feels much more like a schoolhouse than a jailhouse compared to when we took over, that’s for sure,” Cantrell said
Jason’s mother has a different impression. “No kid should be subject to that kind of punishment,” she said of the incident shown in the video. “They treat these kids like they’re caged animals instead of human beings that are kids.”
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.