More than half of Oklahoma’s incarcerated juvenile offenders are held in facilities that don’t comply with federal policies for preventing sexual assault, an Oklahoma Watch investigation found.
Those rape-prevention standards are required in all Oklahoma adult prisons and halfway houses as well as in more than a dozen county jails.
The state’s three secure detention centers for juveniles, run by the Office of Juvenile Affairs, do comply with the guidelines stipulated by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA. But other facilities that the state contracts with, including privately run group homes and county-operated juvenile centers, are not required to comply. State and county officials say compliance would be too costly.
As of mid-February, those group homes and county centers held at least 61 percent of Oklahoma’s incarcerated juveniles.
State officials and national experts disagree about whether contracted detention facilities must abide by the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Some states do require compliance in group homes and other contracted centers.
Brenda V. Smith, a law professor at American University who served on a national commission that developed rape-prevention standards under PREA, said the standards are and should be required at all state facilities holding juveniles in custody. Not adopting the federal requirements puts children at risk of rape and opens the facility up to lawsuits.
“When we take kids away from their homes and communities, we owe their families and communities a promise we’re going to keep them safe,” Smith said. “If we can’t do that, we don’t need to take them into our care or custody.”
Under PREA, all facilities that confine people in the criminal and juvenile justice systems must take specific steps to reduce incidents of sexual abuse. Steps include staff training on prevention and proper behavior, staff-to-offender ratio minimums, cameras placed to eliminate “blind spots” where rapes might occur, and reporting and documentation requirements.
The law applies to all adult facilities, even at the local level. But federal authorities can only enforce the law by penalizing states for failing to adopt the requirements at state-run or certain state-contracted facilities.
In 2012, the U.S. Justice Department issued standards and required state governments to ensure that state-run and state-contracted juvenile facilities adopt them or face losing 5 percent of all annual Justice Department grant funds.
However, the state exempts county detention centers because it says they are outside of its “operational control,” and group homes because they use a social and medical model approach.
In 2015, Gov. Mary Fallin sent a letter to the Justice Department saying the state is implementing rape-elimination standards. However, Fallin said many of the requirements are costly and unrealistic.
“States are threatened with the reduction of federal funding for services to victims of crime because of the unrealistic standards that ignore the operational realities of the adult and juvenile correctional industry,” Fallin wrote.
Measuring Sexual Assault
Sexual assault occurs in Oklahoma’s juvenile system, but the prevalence is unclear.
In 2013, the Justice Department released the results of a survey of juveniles in the system conducted between 2007 and 2012. Among 46 juveniles surveyed in six Oklahoma detention centers and group homes, 18.4 percent reported some form of sexual victimization by another youth or a facility staff member. That was nearly twice the national rate of 9.5 percent.
But juvenile justice system officials say many of the youths surveyed were likely making false allegations. Also, investigative findings suggest sexual abuse is declining. Among 135 allegations of sexual assault made in detention facilities during the six-year period, investigators substantiated 14. In 2015, state officials received 24 allegations of sexual assault and none were substantiated.
Jason Szanyi, director of institutional reform at the Washington-based Center for Children’s Law and Policy, questioned the lack of substantiated cases, saying investigations may not go deep enough to overcome victims' and witnesses' reluctance to talk.
“There aren’t avenues to report, or they may fear retaliation,” Szanyi said.
Referring to the survey’s findings that one in 10 juveniles reported sexual abuse, he added, “In my mind, that’s still a horrifying number. If we had a public school where one in 10 kids were reporting sexual victimization by staff or other kids, we would close the place down and demand an investigation.”
In late 2014, an employee at the Southern Plains Treatment Center in Norman raped a teenage girl. At the time, Southern Plains was the state’s only privately contracted secure facility for girls.
The employee was arrested in 2015 and later pleaded guilty to second-degree rape and bringing contraband into a secure juvenile facility. He received a 10-year suspended sentence. By the time of the arrest, the state had taken over operation of the center, although it said the change was unrelated to the incident.
In a case from 2012, a boy incarcerated in the Salt Fork Adventure Program, a group-home camp program in Nash, alleged a female security officer raped him. The boy’s mother filed a suit in federal court against the officer, the state and Southwestern Oklahoma State University, which ran the camp program.
The suit claims the guard gave the boy alcohol and eventually took him and another juvenile to her house, gave them alcohol and marijuana, had sex with him, and took nude photos of him. A deputy stopped the guard driving a car with the juveniles in it, allegedly going 98 m.p.h. Officers arrested the guard on complaints of drunk driving and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
The officer was dropped from the lawsuit, and a judge dismissed the Office of Juvenile Affairs and the university from the suit, ruling in part that the actions were outside the scope of the officer's employment. The mother has appealed to the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Historically, sexual assault has caused major upheaval in the state's juvenile program.
In 2005 a Justice Department investigation of the L.E. Rader Center in Sand Springs, then Oklahoma's only maximum-security juvenile facility, found numerous instances of sexual relationships among juveniles and between juveniles and staff members.
The Justice Department sued the state, which agreed to settle and make changes to the system. The Rader Center was shuttered in 2011.
Uncovered by Standards
Oklahoma’s juvenile detention system consists of four types of facilities: three state-run secure detention centers in Manitou, Tecumseh and Norman; 15 privately run group homes; 17 county detention centers, where offenders stay for anywhere from a day to three months; and community intervention centers.
As of Feb. 18, Oklahoma had 160 adjudicated juveniles in the state-run secure detention centers, which have been audited by a Justice Department-certified auditor for compliance with PREA.
The rest of the offenders are in facilities not required by the state to comply: 244 juveniles in group homes, and unknown numbers among the 309 beds in county centers. Those figures don’t include juveniles held for up to 24 hours – thousands of placements per year – in nine community intervention centers, where PREA doesn't apply. Many of the youths there committed "status crimes," such as underage drinking.
Board of Juvenile Affairs meeting records show that in 2013 the state was planning to require county juvenile detention centers and group homes to abide by the act. However, then-Director Keith Wilson said he expected small county facilities and group homes to have trouble implementing the standards.
Later that year, the state also provided PREA orientation to private group home directors to prepare them to implement the requirements, meeting documents show.
In mid-2014, the state inserted clauses into its contracts with larger county centers that serve a wider region, stating, “If applicable, contractor agrees to comply with all requirements of the Prison Rape Elimination Act … and associated regulations.”
Later, the state determined the PREA requirements did not apply to group homes and county facilities, said Janelle Bretten, interim director of OJA.
She said the state added the language “when we first learned about PREA because in the beginning we weren’t sure. We wanted to make sure they were compliant if they were supposed to be compliant.”
In September 2015, then Director Wilson told the OJA Board of Directors that prior to rape-prevention audits of the two boys’ detention centers, he was afraid the audits would “eat us alive.” That proved unfounded when the audits came back clean, he said.
Some county juvenile agency officials express confusion about whether PREA will apply to them.
“That’s a gray area,” said Richard McDonald, director of the Comanche County Juvenile Bureau. “OJA hasn’t put the hammer down on it either. It’s a little surprising. I thought they would take the lead on this thing a little more instead of leaving it up to the individual facilities.”
Few juvenile facilities across the country actually comply with PREA, McDonald said. Doing so is difficult and expensive, and for small facilities – such as Comanche County’s 25-bed facility with six regional beds – the burden is even greater.
McDonald said the facility follows best practices to prevent sexual victimization, but is unsure whether it will have to adopt all of the PREA requirements.
“If we have to do it, we will and we’ll do it well," McDonald said. "But hopefully someone is going to help us out with the budget end of it.”
Smith, the law professor, said states have had years to begin adopting the requirements, and funds were made available by the federal government to assist them.
“If you actually look and read the statute, there is very little in there that doesn’t come from an existing obligation … The reality is, if you don’t want the federal government in your business, then handle your business,” Smith said.
James Saffle, director of the Oklahoma County Juvenile Bureau, said its juvenile detention center follows most PREA standards, but is not officially compliant because it has not been audited.
“It (complying) is going to cost substantially, and you’ve got to have a full-time person dedicated to that. Then you have to have audits … There are no restraints on how much they can charge you," Saffle said.
The Tulsa County Juvenile Detention Center, however, is working to be PREA-certified by October, said the juvenile bureau’s director Justin Jones.
“That’s not to say we didn’t have policy that was already in compliance," Jones said, "but you’re really not compliant until you have the certification by an auditor trained by the Department of Justice.”
Jones said the Tulsa County Juvenile Bureau’s interpretation is that county facilities contracting with the state must meet the standards.
“It’s an opportunity to further reduce any litigation and liability,” he said. “ And when you’re working with youth, it’s right thing to do.”
Smith said the decision to fully comply ultimately comes down to whether jurisdictions think the costs will outweigh the risks of litigation and public outrage should sexual abuses occur.
“They may roll the dice to take the risk,” Smith said. “The reality is it’s OK until it’s not.”