WV Judge orders closure, moving of juvenile sex offender facilit - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

WV Judge orders move for juvenile sex offender facility

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The Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center for juvenile sex offenders must be moved out of its current facility before Sept. 30, visiting Mercer County Circuit Court Judge Omar Aboulhosn ruled July 10.

His decision came after witness testimony regarding concerns of the lack of compliance with a previous court order and severe short-staffing.

In his verbal order, Aboulhosn said he was "stunned" to find out juveniles with mental issues, who were housed in the wellness center, were currently being housed with adult sex offenders. Aboulhosn noted those adult sex offenders were juveniles when they committed the offense.

"I'm frustrated," Aboulhosn told attorneys. "I'll be honest with you; this is frustrating. … State government is like this huge ship and you can't spin it on a dime but this matter calls for it to be turned on a dime."

"I'm ordering this because this is the only way I can make this ship turn on a dime," he later added.

According to the West Virginia Division of Juvenile Services, the maximum-security, state-operated facility houses 38 beds for male sex offenders and it is located on the grounds of the West Virginia Industrial Home for Youth.

Earlier this year, the Division of Juvenile Services announced its intention to close the Industrial Home as a juvenile facility and to relocate more than 300 adults there.

The change was part of a larger plan proposed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety to reorganize facilities under the Division for Juveniles Services and the Division of Corrections.

Mountain State Justice, which represents two residents of the facility, originally filed the emergency petition for writ of habeas corpus and writ of mandamus in the state Supreme Court against Dale Humphreys, director of the Division of Juvenile Services and David Jones, the superintendent of the West Virginia Industrial Home for Youth.

The case later was transferred to Kanawha County Circuit Court for factual development, and Mercer County Circuit Court Judge Omar Aboulhosn was appointed to oversee the case.

In the court's November order — which is at issue in the Harriet B. Jones treatment facility matter — parties in the Industrial Home lawsuit agreed to policy changes, such as those controlling solitary confinement, appropriate garb and weekly phone calls.

The order also included an agreement about strip searches, requiring that strip searches be performed only if there is a reasonable suspicion that residents are in possession of contraband, instead of every time they leave the building.

Mountain State Justice called four witnesses, including impromptu witness Stephanie Bond, who serves as the acting director of the West Virginia Juvenile Services.

The first witness was Teah Louise Trent, a former correctional counselor at the treatment center. Trent, who said she is pursuing legal action for wrongful termination allegations, said the facility's director told employees the court order only applied to the Industrial Home for Youth and wouldn't make changes until someone forced them.

Although Trent testified the facility eventually did make changes by discontinuing random searches, changing uniform shirts and allowing residents to talk in the lunchroom, Trent said she still had concerns about understaffing.

The second witness, a juvenile, partially echoed Trent's sentiments, saying the lack of staff made him feel unsafe. Citing a large fight that broke out in the facility, the juvenile said he felt many officers quit because they didn't want to put their lives in danger.

The juvenile also said there were policy changes, noting he and other residents were allowed to talk in the dining halls. However, he said he still would be locked in his room and did not always receive weekly phone calls.

The third witness, Troy Allen Stephens, is a correctional officer at the facility. Stephens said changes were implemented around April or May but also expressed concerns about staffing and the combining of the wellness and sex offender units. 

Stephens said staffing has been a problem for the last year-and-a-half, but the situation has progressively got worse. This is why Stephens said he felt officers' and residents' safety was at risk.

"There are things kept from the kids in that order and because of the staffing shortage, you can't implement," Stephens said when cross examined by the state.

After Stephens' testimony, Aboulhosn called Bond to the stand to ask a question about a report. However, Bond turned into an impromptu witness.

Bond testified that the facility isn't 100 percent in compliance but said it's a work in progress.

"We did not have a problem at the Harriet B. Jones facility until this lawsuit came about," Bond said, later adding that since then, there have been more assaults. 

Aboulhosn later said he had serious concerns about a waiver of hearing and a guilty plea from one of the juvenile residents, who was accused of lying to an officer about having permission to roll up his sleeves in a shop class.

"This has got to be the worst document I've ever seen," Aboulhosn said of the document. "There is nothing in here that says he pleaded guilty to anything … This is troubling if this is the due process going on."

Bond responded that the proceeding was recorded and Aboulhosn said he would like to see that recording.

Bond testified that the Division of Corrections has agreed to supply officers to fill all vacant positions and she said she wants to ensure that every kid will get a weekly phone call.

Bond also said some of the staffing issues resulted from employees taking unexpected sick leave. She further said West Virginia Juvenile Services still is searching for a permanent facility for the Harriet. B. Jones facility.

"It's hard to recruit if I tell people I don't know if they will be working here or in the southern part of the state," she said.

Bond said juvenile services is looking for any structure it can renovate. The facility must provide enough area for all residents' needs including educational, treatment, security and inside/outside recreation.

Marty Wright, representing the state, said in his closing arguments that officials have hit bumps in the road but they are working toward full implementation of the court order. And  he said these changes will not happen overnight.

However, Aboulhosn said the bottom line is that the treatment center must be out of its current location by Sept. 30.

"The HBJ needs to be turned around on a dime and it needs to be out of this facility," Aboulhosn said.

"If I don't order something to be done, I'm afraid we will be here next year and it's still not done," he later added.

The state expressed concerns that the deadline would cause more harm than good, saying it may not be enough time to implement all changes. Wright asked the court to allow officials to work through issues and show progress and reach an agreement.

Aboulhosn said he would take motions to extend the timeline if he sees satisfactory progress.