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Ex-guard investigated in sex assault at juvenile lockup in Arkansas, files show

A former guard is under investigation in the repeated sexual assault of a teenager detained at an Alexander lockup, police records show.

The 17-year-old victim included details about the abuse in 12 filled journals, dating to January, according to a Bryant Police Department report. The journals were found in his living quarters by workers at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center on the morning of Sept. 21 -- the same day the report was filed with the Police Department.

The Alexander treatment center serves as the state's central intake facility for adjudicated children. It has about 100 beds.

According to the police report, the case was sent immediately to the Arkansas State Police's Crimes Against Children investigative unit.

Amy Webb, a spokesman for the state Youth Services Division, confirmed that the 43-year-old female guard named in the report resigned on Sept. 21, after nine months of part-time employment at the center.

It's standard policy to place the accused employee on administrative leave until the abuse investigation concludes, Webb explained.

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The Youth Services Division also will give police "any information they need to complete the criminal investigation," she said.

The state police Crimes Against Children Division has 45 days to complete a child-abuse investigation and may request a 15-day extension.

The guard has not been charged, a check of Saline County's court database shows. Because no charges have been filed, she is not named in this article. The county jail roster also doesn't indicate that she was arrested or ever held there. The guard doesn't have any past or ongoing civil complaints filed against her in her role as an officer in juvenile facilities, according to federal court records.

The sexual-assault allegation is part of a lengthy history of maltreatment at the Alexander center, even before the Nevada-based company Rite of Passage began operating it in August 2016 as part of a three-year, $34.1 million contract with the state.

The company's attorney, Debby Thetford Nye, declined to comment about the specific case, citing confidentiality laws. In an email, she wrote that Rite of Passage's policy "requires immediate action and the interaction with outside agencies" and that "there are no exceptions to these immediate actions when any allegation or suspected sexual abuse reports occur."

Webb said the assault allegation also triggered a separate review to be conducted by the youth agency. Officials will evaluate whether the victim's parents were notified appropriately about the assault, as well as focus on staff training and Rite of Passage's policies and procedures.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson's spokesman J.R. Davis noted that the division's review is automatic when serious complaints occur.

"Obviously, the governor supports that," he said.

As a newly elected governor in December 2014, Hutchinson made a surprise visit to the Alexander facility. Months later, he appointed 21 members -- judges, lawmakers, community leaders and child-welfare advocates -- to the state's Youth Justice Reform Board.

The legislatively empowered panel was given responsibility for "ensuring statewide accountability for the delivery of youth services" under Arkansas law and has since merged with the state Supreme Court's Commission on Children, Youth and Families.

The combined groups expect to send a proposal for legislative action to lawmakers next year.

The Alexander center has a troubled past.

In 2001, U.S. Department of Justice inspectors toured the facility and found that "certain conditions at Alexander violate the constitutional and statutory rights of residents" because of a lack of fire safety, and adequate mental health and educational services. The inspection came almost three years after the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette exposed abysmal conditions at the center.

Since then, the newspaper has chronicled the maltreatment and abuse of teenagers at the lockup, which has been managed by a string of private contractors before Rite of Passage.

A December 2016 abuse allegation there is evidenced in video footage that depicts a guard assaulting a compliant youth, Amy LaFont, a Little Rock attorney told the newspaper. The guard was fired and state police were notified of the incident.

Families can contact the juvenile ombudsman, a key resource for families involved with the juvenile-justice system, about concerns related to abuse and neglect at youth jails, as well as inadequate medical, behavioral, mental health and educational services.

Arkansas went nearly seven months without a juvenile ombudsman, until it hired Brooke Digby, an experienced youth advocate and worker, in July. The juvenile ombudsman reports to the state's Public Defender Commission and can be reached by telephone at (501) 682-9070 .

"It's my job to advocate for what's in the best interest of committed youths," Digby said. "I am very passionate about that work."

A Section on 10/11/2018

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